Asian Olympic chief Sheikh Ahmad denies FIFA bribery claims

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GENEVA (AP) — Asian Olympic leader Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait has denied claims made in a U.S. federal court that he paid six-figure bribes to FIFA voters.

"Sheikh Ahmad is very surprised by such allegations and strongly denies any wrongdoing," the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) said in a statement issued Saturday on behalf of its president.

The sheikh's influential roles in sports politics include the OCA presidency since 1991, a FIFA Council seat since 2015, and president of ANOC, the global group of national Olympic bodies, since 2012. He has been an International Olympic Committee member for a quarter of a century.

Long seen as a key power broker in Olympic and soccer votes, Sheikh Ahmad is under pressure just nine days before he faces re-election for his own FIFA seat in a poll of Asian soccer federations.

A FIFA panel which rules on candidates' integrity is weighing whether to remove the Kuwaiti royal from the ballot paper in Manama, Bahrain.

A person familiar with the process told The Associated Press that FIFA's Review Committee began looking at Sheikh Ahmad's case on Friday. The person requested anonymity because the process is confidential.

The review started one day after a FIFA audit panel member admitted in a federal court in Brooklyn that he took $850,000 in bribes from Kuwaiti officials to buy his influence and help recruit other FIFA voters.

A second FIFA judicial body, the FIFA ethics committee, can also take the sheikh out of the election by provisionally suspending him.

Sheikh Ahmad has informed FIFA's ethics investigators and "put himself at their disposal," the IOC said in a statement Saturday.

"And even though it is not related to any IOC matter he has also informed the IOC Chief Ethics and Compliance officer," said Mark Adams, spokesman for IOC President Thomas Bach.

Sheikh Ahmad was widely hailed as a "kingmaker" for his winning streak in Olympic elections. This week he became one of the highest profile sports officials drawn into the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption soccer revealed two years ago.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty on Thursday to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to bribes that helped officials gain influence in international soccer.

Lai admitted receiving around $1 million in bribes from various Asian soccer leaders, including what the Department of Justice described as a "faction" from Kuwait seeking to gain influence in FIFA elections.

Though Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and Brooklyn court documents, a transcript of Lai's hearing quoted him as claiming "co-conspirator #2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia." Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a "high-ranking" role at OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.

According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he "received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator #3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014."

"I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2," Lai said in court.

The leader of Guam's soccer federation for 16 years, Lai said he was approached by the Kuwaiti officials after a bitter Asian FIFA election in 2009. He agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait's interests.

Lai "understood that at these meetings Co-Conspirator #3 or his assistants would offer or make bribe payments to these soccer officials," the DoJ alleged.

The Guam businessman also pleaded guilty to failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties. He was released on bail with a $1 million bond to return to Guam and will be sentenced at a later date.

Lai was suspended for 90 days by the FIFA ethics committee, which is now reviewing Sheikh Ahmad's case ahead of his candidacy for the May 8 election in Bahrain.

The OCA said Sheikh Ahmad "will vigorously defend his integrity and reputation and that of any organization that he represents in any relevant legal review."

Sheikh Ahmad, who often works from the Olympic home city of Lausanne where ANOC has offices, seems to risk being arrested in Switzerland. Swiss authorities arrested nine FIFA officials in Zurich in two rounds of hotel raids in 2015 at the request of U.S. authorities.

The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.

Lai's case marked the first major step into Asia, and his admission in court Thursday suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted by U.S. federal investigators.