Two officials convicted at FIFA trial; 3rd awaits verdict
NEW YORK (AP) Two former South American soccer officials were convicted Friday of corruption charges at the first U.S. trial stemming from the FIFA bribery scandal, while deliberations will continue next week for a third official.
A federal jury in New York deliberated a week before reaching the partial verdict.
Jose Maria Marin and Juan Angel Napout, were found guilty of the top count they faced, racketeering conspiracy. Marin, the former president of Brazil’s soccer federation, and Napout, formerly president of Paraguay’s soccer federation and of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL, also were convicted of wire fraud conspiracy.
But Napout was acquitted of money laundering conspiracy. And Marin was convicted on money laundering conspiracy charges, but acquitted of one charge of money laundering conspiracy.
Jurors remained undecided about the single racketeering charge against Manuel Burga, the former president of Peru’s soccer federation.
U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen immediately jailed Marin, 85, and Napout, 59, after prosecutors argued that they had the connections and the wealth to flee the U.S. to avoid prison terms she said could be more than 10 years on the racketeering charge alone.
Afterward, their lawyers said they were disappointed by the verdict.
“We’re going to continue fighting to absolve Mr. Napout,” said defense attorney Silvia Pinera.
Burga, 60, remained free on bail and was to return to court on Tuesday for further jury deliberations. His lawyer, Bruce Udolf, said his client was hopeful that the jury would clear him.
World soccer’s governing body said it is will seek compensation and a share of the cash.
FIFA said in a statement to The Associated Press that “as the jury has found a number of defendants guilty of the charged crimes, FIFA will now take all necessary steps to seek restitution and recover any losses caused by their misconduct.”
Marin, Burga and Napout had been arrested in 2015. Prosecutors accused them of agreeing to take millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen seeking to lock up lucrative media rights or influence hosting rights for the World Cup and other major tournaments controlled by FIFA.
The three were among more than 40 people and entities in the world of global soccer who faced criminal charges in the U.S. in connection with what prosecutors said were schemes involving hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. Many of the other defendants pleaded guilty.
Their trial ended up being colored by odd twists: an unproven accusation that Burga threatened a witness; a juror booted for sleeping through testimony; word from Buenos Aires that an Argentine lawyer had killed himself there hours after being named at the trial as a bribe-taker; and the surprise testimony of a former member of the Jonas Brothers, an American pop rock band.
The government’s star witness, a former marketing executive from Argentina, Alejandro Burzaco, testified that he and his company arranged to pay $160 million in bribes over the course of several years. Some of the money was demanded by a FIFA official in exchange for helping rig a vote that gave Qatar hosting rights for the World Cup in 2022, he said.
“You’ve seen a lot of paper, some of it quite complex,” Nitze said in closing arguments. “There are cases that present mysteries to be solved - whodunits. This is not one of them.”
Prosecutors said that driven by greed, Burga took $4.4 million in bribes, Marin took $6.6 million and Napout collected $10.5 million.
The defense argued that the men were innocent bystanders framed by Burzaco and other untrustworthy cooperators angling for leniency in their own cases. Napout’s lawyer told jurors the prosecution had failed to produce records of wire transfers or large bank deposits that could prove he was receiving piles of bribe money.
“They say cash is king, but where did it go?” said the attorney, John Pappalardo. “There was not one penny they could trace to Juan.”
Marin’s lawyer called his client a clueless figurehead, saying the person making the real decisions was Marco Polo del Nero, the head of Brazil’s soccer federation. Del Nero is charged in the U.S. case but hasn’t been extradited from Brazil. FIFA suspended him from the sport Friday.
Burga’s lawyers zeroed in on evidence that ledgers by sports-marketing officials showed he hadn’t received the cash. Prosecutors said Burga, aware he was under investigation in Peru, told bribe-payers to hold onto his money and pay him later.
One witness described that listed bribes for Napout, including an entry for Paul McCartney concert tickets worth more than $10,000. After the defense questioned whether the concert actually took place, the government called Kevin Jonas to testify that he attended the show as a spectator.
Another cooperator, Brazilian businessman Jose Hawilla, agreed to wear a wire for the FBI to make recordings played at the trial.
One included a conversation he had with Marin in 2014 in which prosecutors say the defendant negotiated a bribe by saying, “It’s about time to have it coming my way. True or not?”
Hawilla responded: “Of course. That money had to be given to you.”
Burga got some unwanted attention early in the trial when prosecutors claimed he unnerved Burzaco by directing a threatening gesture at him - running his fingers across his throat in a slicing motion. The lawyer claimed his client was merely scratching his throat, but the judge took the incident seriously enough to tighten Burga’s house arrest conditions.