A global investigation into soccer’s upper echelons will have aftershocks in the Research Triangle.
Aaron Davidson, effectively the owner of the Carolina RailHawks, was one of 14 world soccer figures indicted by the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday.
He is accused of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice, among other charges. FBI agents arrested the Miami resident on Tuesday night, the Miami Herald reported.
Justice on Wednesday announced the 47-count indictment, alleging that soccer officials engaged in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves though the corruption of international soccer.
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Davidson, 44, is the president of Traffic Sports USA Inc., which owns the RailHawks. Davidson also is chairman and chief executive for NASL, the league that hosts the RailHawks.
It wasn’t clear on Wednesday how the indictments might shape the RailHawks’ future. The town of Cary, which subleases WakeMed Soccer Park to the team, expected its relationship with the RailHawks to continue as usual.
“We deal so much with the local team here,” said spokeswoman Carrie Roman. “Our contact with the person involved has been so limited. There’s not a lot we can say about him.”
In a written statement, parks, recreation and cultural resources director Doug McRainey praised the team as “incredibly professional and committed to doing the right thing for our citizens and this region.”
Davidson has been a face of the league, fighting for viewers and teams in the United States’ burgeoning soccer markets. He became involved with the RailHawks when Traffic bought the team from local ownership in 2010, saving it from dissolution after its fourth season.
There has been no public allegation that NASL or the RailHawks were involved in any wrongdoing. The allegations in the indictment generally are related to larger soccer federations covering the Americas and the Caribbean – but the local team and its league already are responding to the criminal investigations.
NASL announced Wednesday that it has suspended Davidson as chairman of its board and ceased “all business activities” with Traffic.
That could be a blow for the league, given Traffic’s heavy involvement and the financial clout that the sports marketing giant has accrued. A spokesman for NASL did not clarify what it meant by “business activities.”
Curt Johnson, president of the RailHawks, said he could not elaborate. “It’s a good question. ... I think it’s one of those things that’s going to evolve. Tomorrow we may have more news.”
It would not be unprecedented for the league itself to run the RailHawks. NASL operated the Minnesota Stars FC for two seasons.
Since Traffic sold the Fort Lauderdale Strikers last fall, the RailHawks is its only U. S. team.
With average attendance of about 4,500, the club has built a loyal orange-and-blue following in the area, and one fan group – the Triangle Soccer Fanatics – says it doesn’t want that endangered by the broader, messier workings of soccer.
“The fact that there is corruption in FIFA I don’t think comes as a surprise to anyone,” said Jarrett Campbell, president of the support group.
“What I’d say is surprising is the breadth of the Department of Justice’s indictment, and that it hits so close to home with the RailHawks.”
His group has long asked that Traffic sell the team to local owners, arguing that a more-involved ownership would benefit the team. Wednesday’s indictments bolster that argument, Campbell said.
“The members of Triangle Soccer Fanatics cannot condone the behavior of the Traffic Group, or its subsidiaries, and now, more than ever, call for the local ownership of Carolina RailHawks Football Club,” the group said in a written release.
The federal indictment alleges that Davidson and the Traffic conglomerate were central players in a web of corrupt officials who exploited their power over soccer.
Federal investigators say Davidson arranged six- and seven-figure bribe payments for the marketing rights to tournaments such as the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifier matches.
The indictment says Davidson discussed ongoing bribery schemes with his boss, José Hawilla, in March 2014. “Is it illegal? 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.”
In that same month, an alleged co-conspirator reportedly called Davidson for advice on making a bribe related to a tournament contract. Davidson reportedly cut the caller off, saying that it would be better to talk in person.
Nine of those indicted were members of FIFA, the governing body for soccer.
Traffic Sports USA and its parent company, Traffic Group, already have pleaded guilty as corporations to wire fraud conspiracy. Traffic Group is a multinational sports marketing conglomerate.
And Hawilla, owner and founder of the conglomerate, has pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. One of his business ventures agreed to pay bribes of $110 million for marketing rights to upcoming editions of the Copa America.
Hawilla will forfeit more than $151 million, according to Justice Department.
Davidson told The News & Observer in 2014 that Traffic Sports USA was looking to sell the RailHawks to local owners, and he thought it could happen within the next year.
“In order to take this team to the next level, we are going to actively look for local partners,” Davidson said. “It’s important. ... That’s one of the things that’s been missing the last four years, that local-ownership flair and emotion.”
Now the club’s fans are left waiting to find out what will become of a team that already has survived one change of ownership.
“We want to see what that means on a day-to-day basis. How does that affect the RailHawks’ funding, budget resources – making sure the players get paid?” Campbell said.
“They owe us an answer on that, as fans and customers. We want to know what the future holds.”