How Hong Kong background of Fifa’s latest corrupt official came in useful as he funnelled bribes back to city
Guam FA president Richard Lai emigrated from Hong Kong as a 16-year-old – US passport holder pleads guilty to taking bribes of almost US$1 million
The United States’ worldwide investigation into corruption in football has claimed its first victim in Asia – and Richard Lai’s extensive links to Hong Kong proved useful as he funnelled bribes to accounts back in the city where he was raised.
Lai, a US passport holder and president of the Guam Football Association since 2001, pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn court to taking about US$1 million in bribes from fellow Asian Football Confederation officials on Friday.
According to remarks in the US House of Representatives from Guam representative Madeline Z Bordallo honouring Lai in 2012, and paying tribute to his late mother in 2009, the Lai family emigrated from Hong Kong to the Pacific Island in 1970, when Lai was 16.
And it seems he maintained his ties – the bribes were wired to bank accounts in the city and the Philippines, according to the US Department of Justice.
Lai’s mother, born in Guangdong, founded a successful cafe on the island, which her kids – five boys and a daughter – turned into a booming business.
“[My mother] always taught us to work hard, be honest and be faithful to our friends, business partners and customers,” Lai said in his mother’s obituary in 2009.
But investigators suggested Lai had forgotten those lessons about honesty.
“The defendant abused the trust placed in him as a soccer official in order to line his own pockets,” said Bridget M Rohde, acting US Attorney in announcing the guilty plea.
“The defendant’s breach of trust was particularly significant given his position as a member of the Fifa audit and compliance committee, which must play an important and independent role if corruption within Fifa is to be eliminated.”
Lai admitted taking a US$100,000 bribe in 2011 from an Asian Football Confederation official who was running for Fifa president, said the US DOJ, without naming the official. It can be inferred that Lai was referring to Mohamed Bin Hammam, former AFC president.
He also admitted taking more than US$850,000 in bribes between 2009-14 from a faction of officials in Asia, to help them identify who else should be bribed so they could take control of the AFC and gain influence at Fifa.
“We weren’t wealthy at all when we came here. Basically we had no money. But my dad got a job from his friend who was in the shipping business,” said his brother George of the family’s move from HK in an interview with the Guamanian magazine.
He said the brothers got their love for football growing up in Hong Kong.
“It was not a very popular sport in Guam back in the mid-70’s,” George Lai told the magazine. “We didn’t have the facilities back then like what the kids have nowadays.”
George founded Guam’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce of which Richard was secretary general. It hailed him for bringing in “millions of dollars to improve sport facilities on Guam” through his position at the Guam FA.
Some on the island are now wondering how much of the millions given to the Guam FA from Fifa to develop football might have gone ‘missing’.
“Although we are no longer living in mainland China, our heritage continues to be maintained and respected,” Richard Lai told the Guam Daily Post in January this year in an article about Chinese New Year traditions.
“Chinese are very respectful and want to maintain their heritage and culture as much as possible. I think that by doing that we help the next generation be more humble, respectful and remember where they’re from.”
“My mom was the pillar of our family. She always taught us the philosophy to be kind, respectful and to be generous to people that we share the community with “ Lai added in his mother’s obituary in 2009.
“[She believed that] if you are able to help the young generation to have a better living environment they will grow up to be a better citizen which [in turn will] create a better living environment.”
In 2007, he was elected to the AFC’s executive committee and in 2013 to Fifa’s audit and compliance committee – responsible for ensuring the world governing body’s accounts are above board.
Lai faces a likely life ban from Fifa. Its president Gianni Infantino said in a statement: “I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football. I am happy to confirm once again, that Fifa will provide whatever assistance is needed by the US and any other authorities around the world.”
The AFC said it provisionally suspended Lai from football with immediate effect.
The Guam FA said they would not comment until next week.
Additional reporting by Associated Press