The head of the smallest of FIFA’s six global confederations suddenly resigned on Friday, surrendering his seat on FIFA’s ruling council and becoming the latest senior soccer executive to depart the sport amid accusations of corruption.
The executive, David Chung, was the president of the Oceania Football Confederation, whose 14 members wield little power competitively or politically in FIFA. But Chung, of Papua New Guinea, had outsize influence as the most senior of FIFA’s eight vice presidents.
Chung cited personal reasons for his decision, but the announcement came as he found himself under mounting pressure to step down after an audit into a multimillion-dollar project to build a new headquarters for the O.F.C.
Chung’s exit, only days before the O.F.C.’s annual meeting and two months before the World Cup opens in Russia, raised unwelcome questions for FIFA about the probity of the leaders who run the world’s most popular sport. Chung had led the 14-member regional body, made up of New Zealand and a handful of Pacific nations, since 2010, when his predecessor was caught in a vote-selling sting by undercover reporters. In 2015, a broad investigation led by the United States Department of Justice revealed corruption was deeply embedded at the highest levels of world soccer.
O.F.C. members were planning to suspend Chung for a “gross dereliction of duty or an act of improper conduct” at Sunday’s annual meeting, according to documents and emails reviewed by The New York Times. That followed details in a forensic audit conducted on behalf of FIFA by accountants from PwC, and also reviewed by The Times, which raised the possibility of fraud and bribery in the construction project.
Chung did not respond to a request for comment. But he denied the allegations related to the construction project in a letter to a member of the O.F.C.’s board without providing details, saying he would only discuss the matter with his lawyer to protect his innocence.
FIFA issued a two-sentence statement acknowledging Chung’s resignation and quickly removed his biography from its website, before later confirming that the investigation had highlighted “potential irregularities in the construction process of the OFC Home of Football.”
FIFA said it has suspended its financial support to the confederation because of the issues raised by the review. FIFA typically pays $10 million a year to each of its six confederations.
Chung’s departure leaves the Asian Football Confederation as the only regional body to retain the same president as it did in May 2015, when the United States unveiled details of a sprawling scheme of corruption going back more than two decades. That case led to charges against the leaders of the two confederations based in the Americas. Internal investigations later yielded multiyear bans for the former leaders of FIFA and European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. Africa’s longtime president was toppled in an election last year.
The ousters of his peers left the Malaysian-born Chung as the most senior of FIFA’s vice presidents, a designation that carried with it a $300,000 annual salary and the position of first replacement for FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino.
Chung also was an enthusiastic early supporter of the joint North American bid to stage the World Cup in 2026, pledging his confederation’s collective support as far back as April 2017.
The audit of the O.F.C. started a year after Infantino’s election in 2016, after FIFA found discrepancies with the headquarters project for which FIFA, then headed by Sepp Blatter, had provided a $10 million loan. O.F.C.’s longtime secretary general, Tai Nicholas, suddenly quit in December, also citing personal reasons.
The audit found that Chung and Nicholas, without issuing a tender, had hired a company with no experience of the work required for the design of the project, which involved building offices, two soccer fields and other facilities in Auckland, New Zealand.
Investigators then found a series of close relationships between companies advising the O.F.C. on the project and picked to complete the project. All the companies were set up shortly before being awarded contracts, “with no track record of experience, and subcontracted their works to other companies,” an executive summary of the PwC report stated. It found that a separate company set up by Chung might have had links to one hired to work on the project.
The accountants suggested FIFA go to court to find out more. “Due the limitations in assessing the financial records of the external parties it is recommended to commence civil proceedings in New Zealand in order to get access to these records, substantiate or refute the concerns with regards to bribery and corruption this review has raised, and ultimately attempt to recover any potential losses from the third parties,” the report, code-named Project Gunemba, concluded.
Details of the investigation’s findings were sent to members of the O.F.C. executive board, leading the president of Tahiti’s soccer federation, Thierry Ariiotima, to email Chung last week to explain that he expected FIFA would “suspend you very shortly.”
“Based on the documents that I received which are compromising, I invite you to take the right decision in order to protect O.F.C.,” Ariiotima wrote. “As a friend, and FTF president, I sincerely believe dear president that the best decision would be for you to resign immediately.”
The president of New Zealand’s federation, Deryck Shaw, separately wrote to O.F.C. colleagues, telling them “there is very strong evidence to suggest there has been systemic corruption at the highest level within the OFC.” Shaw said he understood the PwC report also had been sent to New Zealand’s Serious Fraud Office.
FIFA declined to say if its ethics body was investigating Chung. That department remains one of the busiest at FIFA; when Infantino removed its two top officials last year, the officials claimed the move would affect “hundreds” of continuing cases.
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