Thabiso Sithole, a sports reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corp., had just finished his Wednesday evening segment on the American indictments that had rocked international soccer when his cousin called.
“Who is this Loretta Lynch person?” she said.
Lynch, a native of Greensboro only one month into her job as U.S. attorney general, captured the world’s attention this week when she vowed to rid FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, of corruption. Her news conference Wednesday was watched around the world and made her the face of the U.S. government’s crackdown on some of the world’s most influential soccer officials.
“She’s been Googled more than a couple times here,” Sithole said by telephone from South Africa. “It was interesting, from this side, that there’s a woman calling the shots for the U.S., and a black woman at that. In particular, going up against football, which is such a boys’ club.”
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The Argentine newspaper La Nación introduced her as “the relentless attorney.” In Paris, Le Figaro called her “the woman who is rocking FIFA.” In Germany, she was simply called FIFA-Jaegerin – the FIFA hunter.
The FIFA indictment capped a month in which Lynch set in motion a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and slapped Wall Street banks with billions of dollars in fines for manipulating currency markets. It was the most high-profile debut for an attorney general since at least 2001, when John Ashcroft accused Robert P. Hanssen, a veteran FBI agent, of being a spy for Moscow in one of the most serious espionage cases in a generation.
In an interview this week, Lynch deflected questions about her role in leading the investigation. Law enforcement officials say she was steeped in the details and involved in every major decision, but did not seize control from the prosecutors and FBI agents. Lynch said she did not stay awake to monitor the arrests of senior FIFA officials in Zurich, leaving it instead in the hands of prosecutors and FBI agents.
“I let my people do their thing,” she said. “And it’s an excellent staff.”
Person of interest
Lynch is not known as a headline-grabbing prosecutor. In New York, as the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, she had to be persuaded to hold news conferences to discuss cases, colleagues said. She has spent nearly all of her career as a prosecutor, and even though her confirmation was held up amid a fight over President Barack Obama’s immigration policy, nobody questioned her qualifications.
Two weeks ago, Silvia Pisani, the Washington correspondent for La Nación, was discussing with her editor possible subjects for an article, and Lynch’s name came up.
“She’s too boring,” Pisani recalled saying. “Let’s do Columba Bush,” the wife of Jeb Bush, a likely Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Florida.
This week, Pisani rushed to write a profile of Lynch for Argentines eager to know more about her.
“They don’t like the American government,” Pisani said. “But they like her.”
Federal courts have allowed American prosecutors to bring cases against foreigners living abroad as long as there is some connection to the United States. Sometimes, that connection is limited, such as the use of an Internet service provider. As a New York prosecutor, Lynch has been aggressive in asserting jurisdiction in cases that reach far outside the country’s border. In the FIFA case, prosecutors say that, among other things, soccer officials and other conspirators used American banks in their bribery scheme. Lynch said she had no qualms about bringing the case on that basis because FIFA was too powerful to go unchecked.
Cheers and jeers
Not everyone cheered the Justice Department’s involvement in the case. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia denounced the charges, calling them “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.”
Sithole said some South Africans were also suspicious, particularly because the Justice Department was claiming that South Africa had been chosen for the 2010 World Cup at least in part because of bribery. And soccer fans around the world acknowledged surprise that the United States – not known as a major soccer country – had brought the case.
But as they heard details of the allegations in the sweeping indictment – briefcases full of cash, $10 million bribes and fixed votes to determine the site of the World Cup – many said they were happy that someone was finally taking on an institution that has long been considered corrupt.
“Everybody I talk to, we’re just chuffed about this,” Ian Lawrence, a soccer fan from South Wales, said. “It’s the best thing that can happen. If anything, I just wish we’d done it.”
Lawrence said he had listened to the news conference on the radio, then watched it later at home. He did not know much about the Americans standing behind the microphones, but one thing was clear about Lynch: “She’s in charge.”
When prosecutors bring charges, they often say the investigation is continuing, even if they do not anticipate additional arrests. But with its forceful declaration and its vow to clean up soccer, the Justice Department raised expectations worldwide that Lynch planned to bring more charges.
“Loretta Lynch is new to this, yes?” asked Niko Hinz, a reporter for Focus Online, a German news site, who was covering the FIFA annual meeting in Zurich. “I think for her it is a really impressive step. In Germany, we have a high sensitivity against corruption and so we are very happy with her. She said it is just the beginning, and I hope this is true.”
On the heels of her global media debut, Lynch plans her first international trip as attorney general. She is scheduled to travel to Germany and Latvia for meetings with European Union officials. The FIFA case is not on the agenda.
Re-elected FIFA chief criticizes Lynch
Invigorated by his FIFA election win, Sepp Blatter dismissed any suggestion Saturday that the American investigation into soccer corruption could yet lead to his door.
Several senior FIFA officials have been arrested already, but Blatter shrugged off the notion that he could be next.
After winning a closer vote than he would have liked Friday for a fifth four-year term, Blatter came out fighting – first criticizing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in an interview with his local Swiss broadcaster.
Lynch said Wednesday that indicted FIFA and marketing officials had “corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves.”
“I was shocked by what she said,” Blatter told French-language broadcaster RTS. “As a president I would never make a statement about another organization without knowing.”