Aaron Davidson Banned From FIFA, NASL as Soccer Corruption Fallout Widens

One day after U.S. federal prosecutors shocked the futbol world by indicting 14 top FIFA executives, the fallout continues for Sepp Blatter — the organization's embattled president — and for Aaron Davidson, the 44-year-old Miami resident charged with helping to funnel millions in bribes to nab marketing rights to soccer tournaments.

Blatter has called a closed-door emergency meeting in Switzerland today. Davidson, meanwhile, has been officially banned from FIFA this morning as well as from the North American Soccer League, the breakaway second division that he'd help found and where he was chairman of the board of directors.

The full federal indictment, meanwhile, spells out more clearly prosecutors' accusations against the Miami resident. The 166-page complaint lays out a complex web of bribery, kickbacks and fraud involving top soccer executives and marketing firms like Traffic Sports USA, a Brickell-based company which Davidson led.

Founded in 1990, Traffic Sports USA was the American arm of a similarly named Brazilian soccer firm. In the U.S., the company quickly won the rights to market CONCACAF — the regional soccer body in charge of games in North America, the Caribbean and Central America. 

But according to the feds, those contracts were rigged from the get-go, and Traffic Sports used outright bribery to keep the deals in place.  

Unbeknownst to Davidson, federal authorities watched closely as he negotiated in 2012 with CONCACAF executives to win the rights to market the Gold Cup, the region's club Champions League tournament and its World Cup qualifiers. The deal, the feds say, hinged on Davidson and his company paying a bribe to Jeffrey Webb — another of the executives charged in the indictment, a Caymans Island native who'd recently become CONCACAF's president.

Davidson eventually agreed to pay Webb $3 million to get the contract, the feds say, and later personally signed a $23 million contract for World Cup qualifier rights in August 2012. A few months later, he signed a separate $15 million contract for Gold Cup and Champions League deals that included another million-dollar bribe for Webb. The next year, he helped arrange another $2 million for Webb, they allege.

Investigators later listened in as Davidson met with co-conspirators and discussed how to pay off the bribe without alerting financial authorities.  In a meeting with one cohort, they say they caught Davidson on tape admitting he knew exactly how Traffic Sports USA was operating.

“Is it illegal?" he asked his colleague, according to the feds. "It is illegal. Within the big picture of things, a company that
has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.” 

The indictment is a shocking blow to one of the most visible faces for soccer in South Florida. The Texas native — born to parents from Costa Rica and Mexico — was fluent in Spanish, French and Portuguese and earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University.

Since setting up shop in South Florida, he'd become a charismatic champion of the sport, moving from the marketing side into team ownership about a decade ago when Traffic Sports took over Miami FC, a second-division franchise.

When signing washed-up Brazilian legends like Romário didn't draw crowds, he publicly appealed to Miami to support soccer, saying the team would die if he couldn't round up 5,000 season ticket holders. He didn't but tried one last gambit: Signing a number of recent Cuban exiles to the team.

That didn't work either, and the franchise later moved to Fort Lauderdale and was renamed the Strikers. Last year, Davidson sold the team to a Brazilian investment group.

But he continued nationally as a leading voice for the NASL, the second division, where he was CEO and then, until today, chairman of the board of directors.

Now, he's facing federal charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. FIFA announced this morning that he's been banned "from carrying out any football-related activities at national and international level."

And the NASL suspended him and ceased all operations with Traffic Sports USA, which still owned another franchise in Carolina.

Worst of all for Davidson, his firm's Brazilian parent company has already pleaded guilty and it's owner, Jose Hawilla, has agreed to pay back $150 million.       

Davidson still hasn't publicly commented on the indictment, and it's not clear if he has an attorney.  
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink