On a Saturday morning early this year, Shani Whint opened the cabinet under the sink in the townhouse she was renting in Conyers, exposing a washtub collecting leaking water and a cavity encrusted with mold and filth.
She then pointed to the ceiling, where a yellow stain had spread. That, she said, was coming from an upstairs toilet that had been leaking for weeks.
Facing eviction, Whint had little good to say about her landlord, Jeffrey Webb, and she wasn’t particularly interested in the fact that he had problems of his own. She just wanted the place fixed.
The trail that federal prosecutors in New York have followed in exposing the greed and corruption of the men running FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has pointed in many directions, and one of them is to Georgia, where Webb, among the most corrupt, stashed some of his dirty money in real estate.
A native of the Cayman Islands who has lived in the Atlanta area off and on for the last eight years, Webb is now awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to soliciting and accepting nearly $7 million in bribes. The money came from companies seeking the marketing and broadcasting rights to World Cup qualifying matches and other major soccer events.
Because Webb, 54, has yet to be sentenced, the full extent of his crimes and the nature of his cooperation with the government haven’t been spelled out publicly. In fact, entire sections of the transcript of his plea hearing have been redacted because the proceedings were sealed.
But, in at least one instance detailed by prosecutors, Webb, aided by an associate, moved a portion of the bribe money through a myriad of offshore bank accounts and used it to snatch up homes in metro Atlanta in what was then a down market.
Webb bought an ornate mansion in Loganville for himself and his wife, a local physician. He also bought three rental properties, one in Conyers and two in Stone Mountain. All told, records show, he paid $850,000 for property now worth nearly $2 million.
The purchases gave Webb the look of a savvy investor, not a money launderer, and likely helped conceal his fraud, experts who have dealt with similar cases said.
“Real estate is very attractive to some extent because you can launder money further,” said Chris Quick, a former FBI agent who specialized in financial crimes. “You buy a piece of property and get rents on it. You put the rents into your bank account with the illegal funds and you have the appearance (of legitimacy).”
Records and interviews, though, suggest that Webb showed only a marginal interest in being a landlord.
“I’ve never seen him,” said Rita Tarrence, president of the Stone Mill Condominium Association, which has placed a lien for $5,891 against one of Webb’s properties, a townhouse in Stone Mountain, for unpaid dues. “As far as I know, he’s never been here.”
Webb’s attorney, Ernie Gao, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking to interview him or Webb for this story.
At his plea hearing, Webb acknowledged that he abused his position within FIFA by obtaining bribes and kickbacks. He also stated that the practice was “common” at soccer’s highest levels. Otherwise, he has made no public statements since he was arrested along with other FIFA officials at a Zurich hotel in May 2015.
A hard fall
In many ways, Webb has fallen harder than any of the other FIFA officials and marketing executives swept up in the government’s case, which, to date, has led to 26 guilty pleas or convictions.
A banker in the Caymans, Webb rose through the ranks of soccer in that country to become president of CONCACAF, which governs the sport in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The position made him a FIFA vice president, and he often spoke of how he planned to reform the organization.
But the truth, according to prosecutors, is Webb used his influence to enrich himself illegally before he was elected president of CONCACAF and then continued to do so “almost immediately” after he took office.
Webb, who has been living in Georgia under modified house arrest since posting a $10 million bond, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. He is due to be sentenced March 7, although all seven of his previous scheduled sentencing dates have been delayed.
In addition to a lengthy prison sentence, Webb faces deportation to the Caymans, where he would likely have to deal with charges for his alleged role in a hospital procurement scandal. A business associate of Webb’s, Canover Watson, has already been convicted and sentenced to prison in that case.
In his book, “The Fall of the House of FIFA,” British journalist David Conn quotes Sepp Blatter, the organization’s former president, as singling out Webb for his hypocrisy.
Blatter, who hasn’t been charged in the U.S. prosecution but was removed from office and banned from participating in FIFA activities for six years, recalled Webb tearfully presenting himself as representing a new era of fair play and respect. Yet when the authorities in the U.S. built their case, Blatter said, “the first one arrested was him.”
Marriage and a mansion
Webb’s connection to Atlanta is his wife, Kendra Gamble-Webb, an OB/GYN who has been practicing in the city since 2006.
The couple met in Miami and were married in an elaborate ceremony at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead in 2013. In keeping with a southern theme, every table at the reception was “smothered and covered” with flowers.
A year later, Webb attended the press conference to announce that Major League Soccer was expanding to Atlanta and spoke of the city one day hosting World Cup matches.
In 2011, not long after meeting his future wife, Webb bought a home in Wellington Lake Estates, a Loganville subdivision of gated mansions built in the style of Mediterranean villas. He paid $590,000 for the 9,851-square-foot home, which had been in foreclosure.
Records in the FIFA case do not detail how Webb obtained the money to buy the property, which became his and his wife’s residence. However, the home was among those listed by the government as subject to forfeiture because of his criminal activity.
When the house was sold last year by Webb’s wife for $1.5 million, the proceeds went to the government, records show.
Within weeks of Webb buying his home, his business associate from the Caymans, Watson, bought the mansion next door. Watson paid $515,000 for the property, which also had been in foreclosure.
Property records still show the home in Watson’s name, although it appears to have been vacated. During a recent visit, a chain secured the gate, and the yard and landscaping appeared as if they hadn’t been cared for in months.
Getting into the market
In 2013, soon after becoming president of CONCACAF, Webb bought his rental properties using money that the government traced to a $3 million bribe. The bribe was agreed to by a Miami-based company, Traffic Sports USA, as part of a deal for the media and marketing rights to World Cup qualifying matches in the Caribbean.
Investigators found that portions of the money were funneled through a series of U.S. and foreign banks before winding up in accounts controlled by a Webb associate, Costas Takkas, in the Caymans. From there, they determined, funds moved to bank accounts in Georgia for Webb’s use.
Property records examined by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show how Webb then jumped into the down real estate market.
His first purchase, a townhouse a few blocks from Rockdale Medical Center in Conyers, cost $64,000. Seven years earlier, the original owner had paid $153,000.
A month later, Webb bought a larger home in Stone Mountain, paying $140,000 for a property that nine years earlier had sold for $305,500. And nine months after that, he bought a townhouse in Stone Mountain for $60,000. That property had been purchased by its original owner in 2008 for $149,900.
In each case, Webb bought the property in his own name and then transferred ownership to a company in the Caymans, Kosson Properties Ltd. A similarly named company — Kosson Ventures — had been set up by Takkas for the bank accounts in the Caymans.
Quick, who now heads an investigative firm in Charleston, S.C., said Webb appears to have given investigators a road map by buying the properties in his own name before transferring ownership to the company in the Caymans.
“That just shows a trail to him, which, to me, is a stupid move,” the ex-FBI agent said.
Prosecutors say Takkas, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to money laundering conspiracy, also used some of the $3 million bribe to add a pool to Webb’s property in Loganville.
According to the government, Takkas lied to a Citibank employee in Florida who questioned him about the transaction, calling the pool a wedding gift.
In a sentencing memorandum, Takkas’ attorney, Gordon Mehler, said his client, a British citizen who became close to Webb while living in the Caymans, acted largely out of the misguided belief that Webb would become FIFA’s first black president.
“This idolized version of Mr. Webb blinded Costas from seeing the truth about his own actions as well as those of Mr. Webb,” Mehler wrote.
People `in and out’
The townhouse Webb bought in Stone Mountain has had a succession of occupants over the years, causing consternation among neighbors, according to Tarrence, the condo association president.
“I have heard from people who live closer to the unit that there have been different people … in and out the whole time,” she said.
Homeowners are supposed to notify a management company designated by the condo association when they rent their properties, but Webb has never done so, she added.
Earlier this year, an AJC reporter found two men living in the townhouse, both of whom said they were working as landscapers. One, Roberto Castro, said he and his roommate, Antonio Perez, had been living there for three months, paying Webb $1,000 a month. He said he didn’t recall signing a lease.
Castro said he had no knowledge of Webb’s background or the FIFA case, although he recalled Webb saying he would be trying to sell the property “for the government.”
Records show that the townhouse is still owned by Kosson Properties and that the lien for unpaid condo association dues was placed against it in August. The amount reflects roughly two years of unpaid dues.
Nine months, no repairs
Whint was forced to move out of the Conyers townhouse after a judge ruled against her in the eviction proceeding.
Responding to the eviction notice in court, she wrote that Webb had hired her husband to do work at his house in Loganville to cover the $3,300 in unpaid rent.
She also noted that the townhouse hadn’t undergone any repairs since she moved in nine months earlier and that she had recently learned from a reporter about Webb’s criminal case.
“I think he is pushing me out cause of his criminal indictment,” she wrote.
Records show that the property was sold in April for $129,000, more than doubling what Webb paid for it. That money, too, now belongs to the government.
What is FIFA?
FIFA — the Federation Internationale de Football Association — regulates and promotes soccer worldwide. It is composed of more than 200 member associations as well as six continental federations. One of those is CONCACAF, which governs soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean. Every four years, FIFA stages the World Cup, the most-watched sporting event in the world. In May 2015, prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York unveiled a sweeping indictment that revealed bribe-taking going back decades. In many cases, the key to where important matches would be played or who would televise them hinged on how much bribe money would be paid to top FIFA officials, prosecutors alleged. Swept up in the case were two of the organization’s most powerful figures: Jeffrey Webb, then the president of CONCACAF, and Jack Warner, Webb’s predecessor in that role. Since the initial indictment was revealed, Webb and more than two dozen others charged in the case have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Warner, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, has been fighting extradition to the United States.
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