GENEVA (AP) — FIFA President Gianni Infantino broke no rules by taking offers of private flights to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican, Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the Emir of Qatar.
Infantino was cleared of suspicion Friday by FIFA’s ethics court after a secret investigation which threatened to derail his six-month presidency of soccer’s scandal-hit world governing body.
The ruling — issued from Zurich as Infantino woke up in Rio de Janeiro for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games later Friday — ended weeks of speculation fueled by leaks to Swiss and German media that he would become the latest FIFA leader suspended from office.
“(The) benefits enjoyed by Mr. Infantino were not considered improper in the light of applicable FIFA rules and regulations,” FIFA ethics prosecutors said in a statement that both officially confirmed and ended its formal probe.
The weeks-long case revealed rifts at FIFA in the transition to Infantino’s leadership since he was elected in February to modernize and clean up an organization left in turmoil after nearly 18 years of Sepp Blatter’s presidency.
The “numerous witnesses” spoken of Friday by ethics prosecutor Robert Torres included staffers and senior officials who resigned or were fired since May.
The investigation into alleged conflicts of interest and accepting gifts also examined how Infantino hired senior advisers, and his refusal to sign a working contract.
One leak included a recording of a FIFA Council meeting in May to show Infantino describe an “insulting” salary proposal from a FIFA-appointed panel. It was for $2 million with none of the multi-million dollar World Cup bonuses paid to Blatter, who got a $3 million basic salary last year.
Still, the case also suggested FIFA’s culture under Blatter of enjoying a five-star lifestyle and privileged access to heads of state appeared to have carried over to the Infantino era.
An internal FIFA memo previously leaked to media said Infantino took flights from the governments of Russia and Qatar, plus former employer UEFA.
Infantino’s working trip to the future World Cup host nations in April started in a private flight from Switzerland accompanied by Vitaly Mutko, the Russian sports minister and FIFA Council colleague, Torres said in a conference call.
After a schedule change for a late-evening meeting with Russia’s President Putin, Infantino’s flight to Qatar was provided by a subsidiary of Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom, which is a 2018 World Cup sponsor.
Torres also gave details of Russian links to Infantino’s family visit to the Vatican after attending the Champions League final in Milan in May.
An airplane provided by Russian businessman Leon Semenenko, a personal friend of Infantino, had been bought two years earlier from Alisher Usmanov, a Putin ally who is a minority shareholder of English club Arsenal.
“The indirect ties of the relationship between Mr. Semenenko and Mr. Usmanov were not sufficiently close enough to be considered in the light of the ‘conflict of interest’ principle,” Torres told reporters.
Torres led a preliminary investigation which also looked at Infantino joining UEFA leaders in their hired flight to Slovenia in early May. The Slovenian soccer federation president, Aleksander Ceferin, has since emerged as a candidate in UEFA’s presidential election.
No evidence suggested Infantino had instructed staff to seek offers of private flight, said Torres, the chief justice of Guam’s supreme court.
Infantino’s hiring process and contract stalemate were judged as “internal compliance issues rather than an ethical matter,” the ethics committee statement said.
Infantino was among the “more than 20” interviews carried out during the investigation, though Torres did not identify other individuals.
“The President would like to thank all those who cooperated with the Ethics Committee to ensure that the facts were heard and the truth prevailed,” FIFA said in a statement.
Torres and FIFA’s senior ethics judge, Joachim Eckert, defended their official secrecy, which they said was allowed by the FIFA code of ethics rules and was agreed to avoid distractions and further leaks. They also insisted on their independence from FIFA.
“There was no pressure put on us to decide the case in favor of Mr. Infantino,” Torres said.
Infantino was not provisionally banned from office — in contrast to his former boss, UEFA President Michel Platini, and Blatter during their ethics case last year which led to bans for conflict of interest.
Blatter is serving a six-year ban for authorizing an improper $2 million payment to Platini in 2011. Blatter will appeal against his ban on Aug. 25 at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland
Platini left CAS in May with a reduced four-year ban in a case that led to Infantino’s unexpected FIFA candidacy.
Complaints against Infantino flowed after senior FIFA officials resigned or were fired, including audit panel chairman Domenico Scala, who oversaw the salary offer, and longtime FIFA finance director Markus Kattner.
Since May, a steady flow of leaked details were reported in German-language media.
Infantino, a Swiss lawyer, had spoken of “carefully orchestrated hysteria” after claims of excessive spending billed to FIFA for rental cars, a private driver, a tuxedo, flowers and a mattress for his FIFA-owned apartment in Zurich, and a step machine for his FIFA office.
The ethic court said these “allegations related to expenses and governance issues had also been investigated but did not lead to any prima facie cases.”
Graham Dunbar can be followed on Twitter at @gdunbarap