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Bribes paid to South American football officials accused of $200m corruption

The trial in New York is the first time that prosecutors have laid out evidence culled from millions of pages of documents, wire taps and money transfer records

These three file photographs from left show: Manuel Burga, Former president of the Peruvian Football Association (FPF), former Brazilian National Football federation president Jose Maria Marin, Conmebol President Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay. AFP Photo
These three file photographs from left show: Manuel Burga, Former president of the Peruvian Football Association (FPF), former Brazilian National Football federation president Jose Maria Marin, Conmebol President Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay. AFP Photo

A former Argentinian TV executive told a New York court on Tuesday that he paid bribes to three South American football officials who are accused of corruption as part of a $200 million scandal that has rocked world football.

Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, has already pleaded guilty for his role and appeared as one of the star prosecution witnesses.

The trial is the first time that prosecutors have laid out evidence culled from millions of pages of documents, wire taps and money transfer records.

Burzaco is the first to describe the aftermath of a dawn raid on a Zurich hotel in 2015 when investigators arrested football officials gathering for a meeting of Fifa, football's world governing body, exposing the global scandal. He said he already had a guilty conscience.

“After 48 hours of struggling with something that was already in my thoughts, I said, ‘Alejandro, you should go to the US, face justice, accept responsibility, try to repair as much as possible the wrong things you did and co-operate,’” he told Brooklyn’s federal court.

He was at breakfast and avoided arrest at the hotel. He initially fled to Italy, where he holds citizenship, but then gave himself up and is co-operating with the investigation.

He offered evidence at the trial of Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout, who have each pleaded not guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.

Burzaco, who was involved in acquiring the TV rights to club and international tournaments in South America, said he already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to racketeer, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

“The conduct was paying bribes, and in particular to paying bribes to soccer officers, soccer officials,” he said.

He was asked by Sam Nitze, for the prosecution, whether he saw any of those officials in the courtroom.

“Yes,” he replied.

He was then asked if he could identify those officials. He named each in turn, describing the clothing they were wearing.

Each of the three defendants, dressed in business suits, listened attentively but betrayed no emotion as they were identified in court.

Burzaco also gave an outline of the vast scale of the conspiracy. He described how his company had partnered with a string of American and European companies in acquiring rights, including Fox Sports in the US. Almost all were involved in paying bribes, he said.

Each of the defendants rose to become president of his country’s soccer federation. And although more than 40 individuals have been charged in the far reaching investigation, they are the only ones to continue to maintain their innocence after extradition to the US.

Each faces up to 20 years in prison.

“These defendants cheated the sport in order to line their own pockets,” said Keith Edelman, assistant United States attorney, in his opening statement on Monday as he described a network of shell companies, bag men and cash drops used to siphon cash from massive marketing and TV deals.

The investigation has already revealed how senior officials at federations across North and South America pocketed bribes in order to steer television and marketing rights to favoured companies for almost a quarter of a century. Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa for 17 years, and other senior officials were ousted as the full scale of the taint emerged.

In their opening statements, lawyers for the three defendants urged the jury to dismiss the evidence of co-operating witnesses as unreliable.

“Some of the most corrupt people on earth,” is how Bruce Udolf, who is defending Burga, put it as he suggested the witnesses faced up to 60 years in prison and would “get pretty doggone creative” to reduce their jailtime.

“Not only did they buy the many officials in their own countries but they also bribed public officials, people at the highest levels of government,” he said.

The defence lawyers instead portrayed their clients as innocent bystanders swept up in the American government’s over-zealous efforts to clean up the world game.

“I’m not here to tell you there’s no corruption in the world of international soccer,” said Charles Tillman, representing Marin. “International soccer is not on trial — Marin is on trial.”