Though Guam is a tiny island without soccer pedigree, FIFA’s political structure allows it to have as much weight in important decisions, including the choice of the president and the host of the World Cup, as powerhouse nations like Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
Lai, a prominent businessman and political donor in Guam, in April 2017 pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in New York, telling the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn he accepted almost $1 million from wealthy sports power brokers in the Persian Gulf who were seeking to buy his support and use him to recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes. The American authorities overseeing the case allowed Lai to return to Guam while he awaits sentencing.
After his guilty plea, Lai received a lifetime ban from soccer in November 2017. But that has not stopped him from meddling in local soccer, according to an affidavit provided to FIFA by Randall Cunliffe, one of the 13 voters in the election to fill Lai’s former post in 2017.
Cunliffe told FIFA, where he is a member of the soccer body’s disciplinary panel, that Lai contacted him by telephone and urged him to pick the man who went on to win the race to be his successor, Valentino San Gil. San Gil, who had been the Guam federation’s general secretary under Lai, beat his opponent, Robert Torres, a longtime former member of FIFA’s ethics committee, by one vote.
Torres, who served as Guam’s chief justice until January 2017, said in a telephone interview that he was aware of the accusations about Lai’s involvement in the election, which used handwritten paper ballots. He called for an investigation to determine whether the vote had been corrupted.
San Gil did not reply to messages seeking comment. Lai’s testimony in federal court forced Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, a powerful power broker in soccer and the Olympic movement, to quit his soccer roles after allegations surfaced in Lai’s guilty plea that he had bribed Asian officials, though he denies any wrongdoing.
Sheikh Ahmad spent months out of public view before resurfacing at a gathering of Olympic officials late last year. He has been attending the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
A FIFA spokesman said its disciplinary committee had received an anonymous complaint about Lai but no direct evidence. However, Cunliffe’s affidavit shows he has been in contact with FIFA, including with Gautier Aubert, the organization’s head of ethics. Cunliffe, a lawyer who serves on FIFA’s appeals committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Guam, like all FIFA members, is entitled to a share of the largess FIFA dispenses. FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, has increased those sums four times, to $1.4 billion across each quadrennial World Cup cycle.
In his affidavit, Cunliffe said Lai had told him in the past he had paid stipends of $10,000 to board members of Guam’s federation “in order to ameliorate them and continue to support his candidacy.”
Cunliffe also told FIFA of at least three examples when soccer federation contracts were given to family members of board members, including some projects that would be directly financed through FIFA and Guam government funds. In one example, a firm run by the brother of San Gil, the new federation president, has received thousands of dollars in contracts dating back several years, according to documents reviewed by The Times.