By Mica Rosenberg and Mark Hosenball
NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - FIFA's granting of rights to Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022 is a focus of U.S. and Swiss probes into alleged corruption at soccer's governing body, but that isn't stopping a group financed by the tiny nation from coming to Washington this week to talk about cleaning up sports.
The Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), which is largely funded by the Qatari government, will talk about its efforts to boost transparency in bidding processes for major sporting events and combat financial malpractice in professional sport at an event it is holding at the National Press Club on Wednesday.
The group, which is headed by two former officials from Qatar's military, includes FIFA's former head of security as an
executive director and Interpol's former president as a member of its advisory board.
The event comes on the heels of the indictment by U.S. authorities of nine current or former FIFA officials and five executives in sports marketing or broadcasting on May 27. They face charges of bribery, money laundering and wire fraud involving more than $150 million.
That investigation is also examining allegations that there was corruption in the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Russia for 2018 and Qatar four years later, according to a U.S. law enforcement official. The Swiss authorities have their own criminal probe into those decisions.
"The ICSS encourages and supports any proactive ?action that
targets corruption in sport governing bodies by law enforcement
agencies," the organization said in a statement on its website.
Its budget is 70 percent financed by the government of Qatar and the rest is income from projects, said ICSS spokesman Stuart Hodge. ICSS couldn't immediately say how large
that budget is.
Critics say the organization has a public perception problem because of the investigations into the allegations about how it's main patron won enough support from FIFA's 24-member executive committee in 2010 to get the 2022 hosting rights. It had faced competing bids from the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Australia.
"There is no question that a Qatari entity faces some
reputational challenges as it sets out to clean up sports," said
Alexandra Wrage, an anti-corruption expert and founder of the
Annapolis, Maryland-based TRACE International.
"Qatar is investing heavily in projects designed to enhance its public image. Whatever its other goals, I am sure the ICSS was established in part for this reason," said Wrage, who resigned in frustration from FIFA's Independent Governance Committee in 2013, saying calls for change went unheeded.
And Jens Sejer Andersen, the director of Danish government-funded sports integrity group Play the Game, said the ICSS clearly had a credibility problem "when serious suspicions are floating in the air surrounding Qatar's 2022 bid due to the corrupt culture in FIFA at the time."
ICSS, though, says it is independent. "There is no external influence or input put on the ICSS from the government of Qatar in terms of how we are run and our activities," said Hodge.
Both Russia and Qatar have vehemently denied there was any wrongdoing in the way they won the World Cup hosting rights. They were not the subject of the indictments announced by U.S. prosecutors last month.
QATAR, FIFA, INTERPOL LINKS
ICSS President Mohammed Hanzab, a former lieutenant colonel in the Qatar Armed Forces, announced the formation of the organization in March 2011, only about three months after the desert country won its bid to host the 2022 competition.
Soon after, Qatar's 2022 World Cup Supreme Committee – in charge of delivering infrastructure and planning for the contest - announced an agreement with ICSS to assist with security for the games.
Hodge said the establishment of the ICSS was in no way
connected with the vote to award Qatar the World Cup rights and
plans to create the center were well underway beforehand.
ICSS' advisory board includes Singapore's Khoo Boon Hui, who was Interpol's president from 2008 to 2012. Qatar's 2022 Supreme Committee was among the top ten sources of external funding for the international crime fighting group in 2014.
Interpol earlier this month suspended a 20-million-euro ($22 million) sports "integrity" agreement with FIFA in the wake of the investigations.
ICSS's connections to FIFA include Chris Eaton, the group's executive director for sport integrity. A former Australian cop and Interpol official, Eaton became FIFA's head of security in 2010 where he looked into allegations of vote swapping between Qatar and Spain-Portugal, who had put in a joint bid for the 2018 World Cup.
According to a book by journalists from the UK's Sunday
Times called "The Ugly Game," Eaton surprised his bosses at FIFA
when he announced his move to ICSS in 2012 and brought along the bulk of his investigative team.
Eaton, who is due to speak at Wednesday's event, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Last year, the ICSS published a joint research project with
the Sorbonne in Paris, one of France's best-known universities,
that found an estimated $140 billion is laundered every year through sports betting. ICSS also partnered with the United Nation's Office on Drugs and Crime to help train law enforcement officers so that they could crack down on game-rigging.
One ICSS advisory board member Juliette Kayyem, who worked as an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in President Barack Obama's first term, said she didn’t see any reasons for concern, noting that the ICSS was doing good work in examining how to keep massive sporting events safe.
The faculty member at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government declined to comment on Qatar's World Cup award, but said: "I think every person on that board is asking all the right questions."
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Martin Howell)