Ray Whelan, a senior staffer for the company that handles hospitality for FIFA, made a dramatic flight from police out the service entrance of a ritzy Rio hotel on Thursday afternoon, the latest twist in a scandal playing out in the last days of Brazil's World Cup.
Rio de Janeiro state police say Mr. Whelan, a British citizen, is now a fugitive, wanted for his role in a FIFA ticket scalping operation estimated to be worth $96-million. He is alleged to have facilitated the resale of thousands of tickets intended for companies and national soccer organizations.
Mr. Whelan is based in Brazil, where he handled "hospitality packages" (high-priced box tickets, in essence) and hotel accreditation for FIFA, soccer's scandal-plagued governing body, through his employer, Match Group. He was arrested on July 7 at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, where he was staying alongside senior FIFA officials.
But hours later, he was ordered released in the dead of night on a habeus corpus writ (police kept his passport) after lawyers who identified themselves as working with FIFA came to the police station where he was held, frustrated investigators told The Globe and Mail. They spoke off the record because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
They say they know the ticket scam extends into FIFA, and are determined to get Mr. Whelan back. On Thursday, a judge in a Rio state court accepted an indictment against Mr. Whelan and others and ordered him re-arrested.
Judge Joana Cortes made the ruling based on testimony from an informant who said that if Mr. Whelan and others in the ring were left at large, there was a significant chance they would intimidate witnesses and derail further investigations, according to the indictment, which was obtained by Brazil's Globo media network.
But when police went to the hotel to detain Mr. Whelan, they found his room empty – clothes strewn about, the TV on, said an officer who was part of the operation. Security footage showed Mr. Whelan and his lawyer departing from the service door 15 minutes earlier – leading police to speculate that someone called from the court with news of the warrant, not uncommon in a judiciary plagued by corruption.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, meanwhile, arrived at the hotel in a limousine motorcade, but could not get in because police vehicles were blocking the way. Officers in the lobby saw Mr. Whelan's wife, Ivy, her brother Enrique Byrom (one of two owners of the majority stake in Match) and others standing together, the women in tears, the investigator said.
In the early hours of Friday morning, lawyers for Mr. Whelan attempted to obtain a fresh habeus corpus ruling, as a sort of prophylactic move against his being arrested. Denying that petition, Judge Flavia Romano de Resende said it was necessary to keep the suspects behind bars "since, if they are set free, they can go back to making an effort to corrupt police or intimidate other witnesses, given the great influence and economical power they have..." She said that evidence from police showed "900 calls were made between the members of this alleged criminal scam, making deals and agreeing on amounts of money to be paid, even to the police."
The ring was cracked by Rio beat cops from a neighbourhood station near the Maracana stadium. In April, undercover officers posing as soccer fans trying to buy tickets for local games from scalpers were surprised to be offered World Cup match tickets – as many as 50 at a time, even for the final (those were going for up to $25,000).
The police began to tap the scalpers' phones, which led them up a chain that included a retired police officer to Algerian sports impresario Mohamadou Lamine Fofana. They arrested him and 10 others on July 1, and thought they had broken the ring. But intercepts of Mr. Fofana's phone yielded 900 calls and text messages with Mr. Whelan in the first 20 days of the Cup.
"There are calls on Fofana's phone to Geneva," where FIFA is based, one of the investigators told The Globe. "Police all over the world offered to help. We just need to get stronger evidence before we involve them," he added, saying it was clear the investigation would lead outside Brazil.
The investigator also said police now have evidence Mr. Whelan was supplying ticket resale networks beyond Mr. Fofana's. He and the 11 others originally faced charges of selling a ticket for a price above its face value , which usually involves a fine of about $200 – but the prosecutor, Marcos Kac, now says he will try to have them charged with conspiracy, which could lead to significant jail time.
Police commissioner Fabio Barucke told The Globe it was clear from the phone intercepts that Mr. Whelan knew Mr. Fofana was a scalper and intended to resell the tickets.
Match initially insisted angrily Mr. Whelan had no involvement with any illegal ticket sales, but softened its tone and said it would co-operate with police. The company at first said Mr. Whelan would continue his hospitality functions, but later that he would forfeit his FIFA credentials. FIFA has said it cannot comment on an investigation, but will co-operate with police.
Match Group won exclusive rights to resell hospitality packages for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in an open tender in 2007.
In 2011, that contract was extended until 2023 for all major FIFA events, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, in a deal worth at least $300-million for FIFA. Infront Sports and Media, a firm headed by FIFA president Blatter's nephew Phillippe Blatter, owns a minority stake in Match. The Byrom brothers' work with FIFA goes back to the 1986 World Cup.
Manuela Andreoni is a freelance writer