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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Former FIFA boss sentenced to nine years in US prison

Juan Angel Napout, a Paraguayan, was president of Conmebol, the governing body for South American football

Juan Angel Napout, a president of the South American football governing body Conmebol, was jailed for nine years by a US federal court for bribes and corruption. AFP
Juan Angel Napout, a president of the South American football governing body Conmebol, was jailed for nine years by a US federal court for bribes and corruption. AFP

To his lawyers, he was a man who did hundreds of good deeds, including paying for his chauffeur’s knee surgery. But United States prosecutors said former South American football boss Juan Angel Napout sometimes moved illicit cash by dispatching his personal driver on 15-hour trips from Buenos Aires to Asuncion, Paraguay.

Napout, 60, who was president of Conmebol, the governing body for South American football, as well as a vice president of Fifa, international soccer’s governing association, was jailed for nine years on Wednesday.

The Paraguayan was convicted by a US jury of getting US$3.4 million (Dh12.5m) in bribes and soliciting almost $25m.

In announcing the sentence in Brooklyn, New York, US District Judge Pamela Chen said she had a hard time reconciling the portrait of Napout painted by his lawyers, family and friends, as a man of generosity and good character with the evidence she saw in the trial.

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“Napout had a public face, one that is reflected in all the letters I’ve seen,” Judge Chen said. “But then there was this hidden character he had, this hidden life.”

Prosecutors sought a sentence of 20 years.

“I know America is a compassionate country,” Napout told the judge before the sentence was handed down. “I beg you for your mercy.”

Napout portrayed himself publicly as an agent of reform who tried to change Conmebol, which was plagued by years of corruption.

But prosecutors argued that as soon as he joined the Paraguayan football association in 2010, Napout began taking bribes. He also collected perks, such as a $40,000 seaside vacation condominium, and more than $10,000 worth of tickets to a Paul McCartney concert.

“He entered sports to make money when he had more than enough,” prosecutor Kristin Mace said. “Napout led by example at Conmebol and Fifa; he led colleagues and subordinates to believe that bribe-taking was common practice.”

Napout was convicted in December of wire fraud and a racketeering conspiracy by a federal jury in Brooklyn after a seven-week trial. He was cleared of money laundering charges.

His lawyers argued the evidence in his trial was just a small snapshot of his life. While they acknowledged that he was born into a wealthy family – one friend described it as a “golden cradle” – they said Napout spent his life helping those in need.

“One act cannot erase a lifetime of good work,” Napout’s lawyer Sylvia Pinera-Vazquez said.

The five-hour sentencing hearing included an appeal from Napout’s wife, Karin Forster, who pleaded, “Please, your honour, give mercy and impose a sentence that allows him to return [to Paraguay]."

Judge Chen said the trial exposed “rampant corruption in international soccer".

“Clearly a message has to be sent to others that this behaviour will be met with serious consequences,” she said. “You cannot steal millions in bribes from these organisations and go unpunished.”

Prosecutors at the trial called almost 30 witnesses, including former sports-marketing executives, who gave jurors an inside look into Fifa’s seamier side.

Alejandro Burzaco, chief of sports-marketing company Torneos y Competencias SA, testified he paid at least 30 football bosses more than $160m to secure broadcasting rights to South American tournaments and World Cup matches in 2026 and 2030.

A former Citigroup banker, Burzaco testified that Napout was among at least six football officials who accepted pay-offs.

Jose Hawilla, the founder of Traffic Sports International Inc, who was caught lying to the US in 2013, agreed to secretly record conversations for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than a year. Hawilla described paying bribes to multiple officials, dating back to the 1990s.

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