KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Gianni Infantino’s escape from a possible ethics code punishment has saddened and shocked Mark Pieth, the Basel law professor originally charged with launching the FIFA reform process.
On Friday the world federation’s ethics committee announced that no action was being taken over whistleblowers’ complaints concerning expenses and flights taken by the 46-year-old since his election in February to succeed disgraced and banned Sepp Blatter.
In a contentious move which reinforced fears of FIFA secrecy, the ethics chamber did not announce the existence of either initial or formal investigations until after they had been completed. It is understood that senior legal officials did not believe conflict of interest allegations could, if endorsed, stand up in a court of law.
Pieth, in an interview with the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, said that all the powers of the independent ethics committee he had created were now “being dismantled piece by piece.” He added: “Nothing has changed. We are exactly where we once were with Blatter.”
Ethics chamber officers on down from German senior judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, complained Pieth, had been cowed into retreat by Infantino’s removal of their guarantee of independence at FIFA Congress in Mexico City in May.
The row had already provoked the resignation of Swiss businessman Domenico Scala as audit and compliance chairman.
Infantino has been considered by Pieth and many other observers to have brought trouble on himself through a bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the presidency which had upset many established FIFA staffers.
Pieth told NZZ the ethics committee inaction stemmed directly from events in Mexico.
He said: “Not only did Infantino manage to get rid of Scala but he gave himself and his colleagues on the FIFA Council the right to dismiss the investigators. This was on a par with the conflict of interest of which Joseph Blatter and Michel Platini were criticised.”
Blatter and Frenchman Platini, then a FIFA vice-president as well as head of the European federation, were banished from football by the ethics committee last December for conflict of interest over a rogue payment of SFr2m.
A central plank of the Infantino issues concerned the organising by Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 World Cup organisers of his flights for visits to the two countries this spring.
Pieth said: “The one flight involved a Russian Minister with whom is Infantino is negotiating concerning the 2018 World Cup. I am not convinced by the excuse that he used a flight funded by the Russian state because otherwise he would have been too late for a meeting in Qatar. He could have called Qatar and said it would take longer to get there.
“It’s not unusual that some people knuckle under to more powerful people. This, unfortunately, is what the ethics committee has done.”
Addressing his core concern, about the undermining of the ethics committee through the withdrawal of its independence, Pieth said: “People may say they still feel personally independent but they are institutionally no longer independent. The real danger is in putting yourself under pressure and to practise self-censorship.
“The ethics commission has taken a quite amazing decision while substantially ignoring the principle of proportionality.
“For example, Wolfgang Niersbach received a one year’s ban for a delayed notification of information [about the 2006 German World Cup cash controversy]. They are afraid of powerful people, a fear enshrined in statutes since the Mexico congress.”
Pieth considered his own work had been undermined by events since Infantino became president.
He said: “I am shocked and a bit sad because I hoped we had done something good by implementing this independent ethics committee. Now we see how it is being dismantled piece by piece.
“They did not have the courage to be decisive because they are not independent. Some were not independent from the beginning because they were already on the old ethics committee. But now, since the change of statutes, even the independent members cannot really feel independent because they can be dismissed at any time.
“The important thing is that nothing has changed. We are exactly where we once were with Blatter.”
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