Conmen target candidates running for Fifa president
Fifa presidency race tarnished by plot to blackmail candidates over supposedly damaging information
The battle for presidency of the world football governing body, Fifa, is best described by three Es - expensive, explosive and exacting.
The candidate hoping to end current head Sepp Blatter's 17-year reign is Jordanian Prince Ali al-Hussein, who is also a Fifa vice-president. Two other candidates have since dropped out.
So it is no wonder that Kenya-based conmen have come up with a scheme to bilk money from the candidates standing in the May 29 fight.
It can be summed up by three Ss - soccer, smear and scam.
In an exclusive, The New Paper, working closely with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, uncovered the Kenyan scam.
This is how it works.
Claiming to know ex-Fifa officials or insiders with access to sensitive material, the Kenyan syndicate would offer candidates information which suggested they were subjects of a smear campaign supposedly hatched by the Blatter camp.
The conmen would demand money before releasing the supposedly damaging information.
Dutch Football Association head Michael van Praag, who has dropped out of the campaign, and current challenger Prince Ali have confirmed they were approached.
Mr Martin Smith, a spokesman for Prince Ali, told TNP in an e-mail reply on Wednesday: "We have had a number of individuals coming forward with similar allegations.
"Our approach has been to try and set up meetings with these individuals so we can assess them and the information they are giving for ourselves."
Similarly, Mr van Praag admitted receiving e-mail from strangers after his intention to run for Fifa presidency was made public early this year.
One e-mail stated: "Some time in late August 2014, Sepp commissioned some espionage work on you fearing you might stand against him in future."
'NOTHING TO HIDE'
However, Mr van Praag ignored the e-mail.
He said: "What do you think it would mean for my image if I were to respond to those e-mail? If it is true that they are working on a case against me, then so be it.
"I have nothing to hide."
The handful of documents TNP had acquired, purporting this smear campaign, appeared genuine on the surface.
Names of people related to Mr Blatter, including his daughter Corinne and his nephew, were included in e-mail exchanges.
In one document titled "Confidential Investigations and Surveillance Report on Prince Ali bin al-Hussein", a director of a security company based in India was supposedly commissioned to carry out surveillance work on Jan 15.
His job entailed gathering factual information on Prince Ali as a candidate and obtaining access to "confidential information for investigations on a national and international basis".
He was supposed to report to Ms Corinne Blatter on March 20.
TNP contacted the director who requested not to be named.
He said in an e-mail reply: "I have no idea who would want to set me up, especially on such an elaborate scam as this. I have never worked for Ms Corinne Blatter in any way.
"The bottom line here is that this has nothing to do with me and any references to me, my company or colleague are false."
We were convinced he was telling the truth as his contact number and e-mail address listed in the document were wrong.
In another e-mail, supposedly addressed to Ms Blatter in June last year, the sender had written in German: "Corinne, I will see what to do about the prince."
Likewise, Ms Blatter was perplexed with the allegations.
She said: "I do not know who is behind it but it is clearly intended to damage my father's reputation."
Fifa has also strongly denied that the candidates were being spied upon.
It said: "Employees of Fifa are not involved in the presidential election."
The scammers may be linked to a similar scam made during one International Cycling Union (UCI) presidential election.
TNP understands that at least one man had lost "tens of thousands of dollars" trying to obtain information about one UCI candidate.
Exposing the lies
GOT YOU! In this e-mail, Naseer reveals the name and contact number of his Kenyan contact, Samson, who would be receiving money on his behalf. But if you look at Naseer’s profile at the top, the phone number is the same as the one given for Samson in the e-mail.
In early April, I received the e-mail address of a man who claimed he knew of a plot against candidates for this year's Fifa presidential elections.
When I first approached him, the man, who said his name was Naseer, pretended to be suspicious.
He asked: "How did you get my e-mail? How can I trust you?"
I revealed I was a reporter who got his e-mail from a European source.
In the course of over 60 e-mail exchanges, Mr Naseer told me: "There is a special smear team and they pounce a week to the polls.
"There is a dossier for each competitor, some nasty things are contained in there about them. The catch word here is dirt."
The information sounded juicy and he even dangled several documents as proof.
But when pressed for more, Mr Nasser demanded 5,500 euros (S$8,100). He said "his man" in Kenya, named Samson,would wait for the money to be deposited into his bank account.
I explained to Mr Naseer it was not TNP's practice to pay for information.
To persuade me, he offered more information. De Volkskrant journalists and I worked together to analyse this maze of e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and facts.
We contacted almost everyone named but they all denied knowing the existence of a smear campaign or being part of one.
Yet, several inconsistencies jumped out at us.
For example, Mr Naseer gave me the e-mail address of the director of the security company tasked to monitor Prince Ali. But unknown to him, I was already in touch with the real director, who was horrified he was being implicated by a stranger.
Another mistake Mr Naseer made was to give us an e-mail address of a contact, who accidentally e-mailed us a document we were not supposed to see.
On that document was Samson's name and banking details. It appeared to be a wire transfer chit between Samson and a company in Switzerland.
When contacted by De Volkskrant, the man behind the company revealed that he had been cheated of money when he tried to get information about an International Cycling Union presidential candidate a few years ago.
When TNP spoke to Samson last week, he denied knowing or speaking with Mr Nasser.
He said: "I do online work for him and he pays me some money."
But he declined to elaborate on the nature of the work.
Still, the plot thickens - it is possible that both men are the same person.
When Mr Naseer sent me an e-mail with Samson's contact number, his e-mail profile reflected the same mobile phone number as Samson's.
I finally confronted Mr Naseer via e-mail, saying I had spoken with the real director from the security company.
It has been six days and he has not replied.
Two-man race for top spot
With less than one week to go, the contenders for the 2015 Fifa presidential election seem clear.
Incumbent president Sepp Blatter, 79, will go head-to-head with Prince Ali al-Hussein, 39, from Jordan.
Two other candidates - Dutch Football Association head Michael van Praag, 67, and ex-Portugal forward Luis Figo, 42 - have pulled out.
Hours after Mr van Praag announced his withdrawal on Thursday, Figo followed suit.
Figo said in a post on his Facebook page: "After a personal reflection and sharing views with two other candidates in this process, I believe that what is going to happen on May 29 in Zurich is not a normal electoral act.
"And because it is not, don't count on me."
The football star seemed upset that there was no public debate reflecting each candidate's views.
In March, Mr Blatter decided not to participate in a televised presidential election debate.
His three rivals had accepted the invitation but insisted all candidates must take part in the debate as a condition of their participation.
On Thursday, Mr van Praag announced he would back Prince Ali's bid for the presidency.