KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- A media investigation in Colombia has cast significant doubts over the future of Maria Claudia Rojas as chief investigator/prosecutor of the downgraded ethics committee of world football federation FIFA.
Rojas was a surprise appointment last May after FIFA Congress, at the behest of president Gianni Infantino, sacked Swiss lawyer Cornel Borbely as well as German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert.
Infantino denied criticism from opponents that the move had been prompted by concerns that Borbely and Eckert were overstepping the mark and becoming thorns in his side. He said the changes were meant to increase diversity in such senior roles.
In 2016 FIFA Congress had stepped up internal pressure on the ethics bosses by withdrawing a guarantee of independence for the organisation’s judicial bodies.
The appointments of Rojas and Greek judge Vassilios Skouris as head of the adjudicatory panel appeared bizarre; the geographical and linguistic distances between them potentially weakened the chamber’s investigatory potential.
Rojas came under fire last week from a heavyweight report into FIFA governance to the Council of Europe.
Rapporteur Anna Brasseur, a Luxembourg MEP, stated that Rojas did not fit the profile of “a prosecutor “ and her qualifications were undermined by a lack of knowledge of English and French in which most ethics documentation is presented.
Further, Brasseur said that Rojas had failed to disclose a friendship with the disgraced former president of Colombia’s football federation, Luis Bedoya, before her appointment.
Bedoya has admitted corruption charges in the United States’ FIFAGate investigation and has given evidence for the prosecution in the ongoing trial of three other former South American football bosses.
Initially Rojas denied Brasseur’s claim. She told local media at the weekend: “I’m not friends with Luis Bedoya. I met him in 2009 during a cocktail party organised by the then magistrate Rafael Lafont, and then we met at other social events. At that time he was a respectable man.”
Now El Tiempo has revealed a letter which undermines not only her denial but, as a consequence, her credibility to head the FIFA ethics commission.
Rojas, in a letter written in April 2014, had formally declared herself unable to hear a lawsuit concerning football governance in Colombia because of her “friendship relationship” with Bedoya, then federation president.
She recused herself from the case by reference to Article 150 of the Code of Procedure which designates one of the grounds as “an intimate friendship between the judge and one of the parties, their representative or attorney”.
The court refused to accept Rojas’s withdrawal request and the case was settled in favour of Bedoya and the federation.
In New York last month Bedoya told the trial of Jose Maria Marin, Juan Angel Napout and Manuel Burga how he had discussed with Napout, Burga and former Ecuador FA president Luis Chiriboga the Swiss bank account in which he received money from Full Play, a media company at the heart of bribery distribution. He had not divulged the account’s existence to his wife.
Bedoya had said he feared for the safety of himself and his wife if they returned to Colombia. They had been assured of eventual access to a witness protection programme.
The former member of the FIFA executive committee had pleaded guilty in 2015 to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy, charges carrying maximum sentences of 20 years each. He has said he had accepted more than $3 million in bribes from 2007-15.
FIFA, asked for a comment concerning the status of Rojas, said:
All appointed candidates for the independent committees and judicial bodies passed the required eligibility checks ahead of the FIFA Council meeting on 9 May 2017.
The checks for candidates for all FIFA committees, except for the Governance Committee (including the Review Committee), were conducted by the Review Committee, which included the former Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Governance Committee, Miguel Maduro and Mukul Mudgal respectively, as well as an independent member of the Governance Committee.
The checks for candidates for the Governance Committee (including the Review Committee) were conducted by the Investigatory Chamber of the Ethics Committee.
Ms. Rojas and all appointed candidates for the independent committees and judicial bodies were chosen because they are recognised, high-profile experts in their respective fields.