September 25, 2019 / 7:49 AM / a month ago

Swiss AG Lauber, under cloud of FIFA scandal, elected to third term

BERN (Reuters) - The Swiss parliament on Wednesday approved Attorney General Michael Lauber for a third term, opting for continuity despite impending disciplinary proceedings over his handling of a soccer corruption probe.

Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber (C) sits in the tribune before the opening of the session for the re-election vote in the Swiss Federal Assembly in Bern, Switzerland, September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Lauber was thrown into the limelight last year when details emerged of confidential meetings he and another high-level prosecutor held with FIFA officials while investigating suspected corruption in world soccer.

The resulting questions over their impartiality sent shockwaves through the Swiss justice system.

The narrow vote keeping Lauber attorney general until the end of 2023 contradicted a recommendation against his re-election this month by parliament’s courts committee.

The panel had said a scandal surrounding meetings he held with FIFA President Gianni Infantino had damaged the reputation of Switzerland’s highest prosecutorial office and put federal attorneys’ ability to act at risk.

Lauber has defended his office’s handling of the case, noting global soccer body FIFA itself was not a target of the probe.

While Lauber had acknowledged two meetings with Infantino in 2016, he had denied a third meeting reported by media to have occurred in 2017, prompting a disciplinary probe by the agency that supervises the attorney general’s office. He later said he did not recall the third meeting but that it must have occurred based on diary entries and text messages.

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With 129 votes, Lauber eked out the majority he needed to stay in his role after some lawmakers spoke out in favor of keeping his office running smoothly and not prejudging his actions before the disciplinary probe — whose start has been delayed by wrangling over documents - wraps up.

“It is important to me as a member of parliament that institutions continue to function properly,” said Christian Luescher of the pro-business Liberals, warning against making the attorney general’s office a political football.

A tense-looking Lauber watched from the gallery during parliament’s debate, his jaw working furiously.

“I am grateful to parliament for the confidence it has placed in me,” he said after the vote. “Strengthened by this election I will continue to commit myself to an effective, independent and modern prosecution.”

Lauber’s office has handled a number of sprawling, high-profile money laundering and corruption cases linked to Brazilian state oil firm Petrobras, Malaysian state development fund 1MDB, and FIFA. It faces criticism for bringing a dearth of charges in matters that secured multiple convictions elsewhere.

The former chief of his office’s white-collar crimes unit, which is overseeing all three of these investigations, was suspended last September over questions regarding his conduct in the FIFA case. He was ultimately cleared, but resigned in December.

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A court in June ordered Lauber to recuse himself from his office’s investigations into soccer corruption, ruling that his closed-door meetings with Infantino raised the appearance of bias.

Lauber, 53, subsequently tried in vain to get one of the presiding judges recused.

In August, with the probe into his conduct under way and a statute of limitations approaching over suspicions linked to the awarding of the 2006 World Cup, prosecutors in Lauber’s office filed fraud charges against three former German soccer officials and one Swiss.

Reporting and writing by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich, Editing by Michael Shields, William Maclean

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