By Mike Collett
LONDON (Reuters) - FIFA's self-acclaimed transparent reform process headed by New York lawyer Michael Garcia came within hours of being sabotaged from within the organization last week, Reuters has learned.
The position of Garcia himself and his role as the head of the Independent Ethics Commission looking into alleged corruption surrounding the voting procedure for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and the 2011 FIFA presidential election, came under threat from a number of senior FIFA power-brokers.
Members of FIFA's executive committee have told Reuters they would have considered their positions had the investigation into FIFA's affairs by Garcia been halted before he had completed his work.
A number of reform-minded members confirmed they stopped the plan before it was even discussed in full session, after being approached in the corridors between sessions of the executive committee meetings at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on Thursday and Friday.
At almost exactly the same time, Garcia was in Zurich carrying out further investigations into FIFA's workings.
There is no suggestion FIFA president Sepp Blatter played any role in the plan to stop what he has widely acclaimed as FIFA's new "transparent" reform process.
Reuters understands from sources connected to the story that the plan not only involved removing Garcia from his post as the chief investigator into alleged corruption at FIFA, but also the game worldwide.
When approached to comment on the alleged plot to end the investigation, FIFA's British vice-president Jim Boyce told Reuters that as far as he was concerned, he would have had to consider his position had any attempt to halt the investigation succeeded.
Northern Irishman Boyce, 70, who is also the head of FIFA's referee's committee and steps down from the committee in 15 months time, said: "There was a bit of informal chat about the possibility that some people wanted to see Garcia removed from the inquiry and that it might be raised at the exco meeting but it wasn't.
"As someone who has been brought up with honesty and integrity - and it was a great honor for me to be asked to be a vice-president - if this had been proposed at the exco meeting or I thought for one moment Garcia would be removed in any fashion from carrying out his full investigation, I and others would be aghast and would have had to consider our positions because things at FIFA have been improving greatly."
FIFA executive committee member Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan told Reuters: "I am very happy that Michael Garcia will continue in his work. There were some questions raised about the necessity of having an Independent Ethics Committee but to be honest, I think that idea was stopped.
"There were certain people like myself who could not accept that this could happen.
"He was supported by our Congress and given a mandate and I am very happy he will continue with his work."
FIFA did not respond to requests for a statement, while a spokesperson for Garcia's office in New York issued a "no comment" reply to a request to establish if Garcia was aware of the plans to end his role.
Last week it was reported that Garcia had spoken to some of the 13 members of the executive committee who are still in office and who took part in voting for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The 2018 World Cup was awarded to Russia and the 2022 finals to Qatar on the same day in Zurich on December2 2010, and one senior FIFA source told Reuters: "I have never understood to this day why there was a double bid. It still makes no sense to me."
The reform process was instigated following the scandals that engulfed the awarding of those finals as well as the 2011 presidential election campaign.
It was approved by Congress in June 2011 while Garcia himself was appointed in June 2012 at an extraordinary executive committee meeting.
Garcia, the former attorney for the Southern District of New York, was empowered by Congress to "leave no stone unturned" in his quest to discover if there had been any wrong-doing regarding the voting procedures in the World Cup bidding process.
As FIFA's first independent ethics investigator and prosecutor he was also empowered to investigate the votes-for-cash scandal that led to long-serving and high-ranking FIFA officials Jack Warner and Mohammed Bin Hammam leaving the organization.
Warner, the FIFA vice-president for CONCACAF, the confederation that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, had been an executive committee member for more than 20 years and Bin Hammam was a FIFA vice-president and president of the Asian Confederation but their careers ended in the wake of the votes-for-cash scandal shortly before Bin Hammam had been due to challenge Sepp Blatter for the presidency in 2011.
Warner walked away from FIFA while Bin Hammam was later banned for life for his role in the doomed corruption bid which involved paying members of the Caribbean Football Union to vote for Hammam against Blatter in the presidential vote.
(Reporting by Mike Collett)