Labeled "clumsy" for his part in one of soccer's biggest corruption scandals, FIFA President Sepp Blatter was cleared of any criminal or ethical wrongdoing in a case involving millions of dollars in bribes for World Cup contracts.
Blatter's predecessor as FIFA president, Joao Havelange, was forced to step down as honorary president because of his involvement in the case. FIFA made the announcement Tuesday, saying the 96-year-old Brazilian, who led soccer from 1974-98, had resigned on April 18.
A report issued Tuesday by FIFA ethics court judge Joachim Eckert said Havelange's conduct had been "morally and ethically reproachable" for accepting bribes from the sport's marketing company ISL from 1992-2000, along with his former son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, and Nicolas Leoz, the president of South America's governing body since 1986.
Blatter, who took over from Havelange in 1998 and served as general secretary before that, got off more lightly despite questions of whether he should have known about the bribes.
"The conduct of President Blatter may have been clumsy because there could be an internal need for clarification, but this does not lead to any criminal or ethical misconduct," the report said.
According to the judgment, then-FIFA general secretary Blatter forwarded to Havelange in May 1997 a 1.5 million Swiss franc (then $574,000) payment from ISL that mistakenly was sent to a FIFA account.
Leoz resigned from FIFA's executive committee last week, citing health reasons, while Teixeira resigned last year from the executive committee and his position as head of the local organizing committee for the 2014 World Cup.
Eckert said their conduct pre-dated FIFA's current ethics code, which came into force last year and was not relevant to the case. And because both Havelange and Leoz have stepped down from FIFA, he noted that "any further steps or suggestions are superfluous."
"However, it is clear that Havelange and Teixeira, as football officials, should not have accepted any bribe money, and should have had to pay it back since the money was in connection with the exploitation of media rights," the judgment said.
Blatter said he received the verdict on his own role "with satisfaction," but acknowledged the case has "caused untold damage to the reputation of our institution."
"There are ... no indications whatsoever that President Blatter was responsible for a cash flow to Havelange, Teixeira or Leoz, or that that he himself received any payments from the ISL Group, even in the form of hidden kickback payments," the ruling said. "It must be questioned, however, whether President Blatter knew or should have known over the years before the bankruptcy of ISL that ISL had made payments (bribes) to other FIFA officials."
Sylvia Schenk, senior advisor for sports for the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, said she was amazed that Blatter allowed the scandal to occur.
"He can't be so stupid to think, 'This has nothing to do with me,'" Schenk said. "He should have thought there was something wrong ... and looked into the details."
Eckert based his judgments on a 4,000-page investigation report submitted by FIFA ethics prosecutor Michael J. Garcia.
Havelange and Teixeira were formally identified last July for taking bribes, when Switzerland's Supreme Court ruled that a Swiss criminal prosecutor's report on the case should be made public. FIFA, Havelange and Teixeira had tried to suppress it.
Havelange resigned in 2011 as a member of the International OIympic Committee to avoid sanctions stemming from his role in the ISL case.
ISL was created in the 1970s, helped fuel the boom in sports marketing and worked closely with the IOC.
Swiss prosecutor Thomas Hildbrand wrote in a case dossier that the agency funneled money through Liechtenstein to pay commissions to officials "favored in order to promote sports policies and economic goals."
Six former ISL executives stood trial in 2008 and were cleared of charges relating to fraud.
The most prominent ISL executive, Jean-Marie Weber, still is listed as a marketing adviser to the Confederation of African Football on its website. CAF President Issa Hayatou, a FIFA vice president, was reprimanded by the IOC in 2011 for accepting $20,000 in cash from ISL in 1995. He said the money was for an event to celebrate a CAF anniversary.
In court evidence, Leoz was identified as having received two ISL payments totaling $130,000 in 2000. The BBC later reported that he received further payments of at least $600,000. Leoz claimed that all of the money he received from ISL was donated by him to a school project, but only in January 2008 — eight years after he received it.
Payments attributed to accounts connected to Havelange and Teixeira totaled almost $22 million from 1992-2000.