Former South American soccer officials face US bribery trial
NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. prosecutors say Brazilian businessman Jose Maria Marin was a soccer official on the take — and wasn’t always discreet about it.
“It’s about time to have it coming my way. True or not?” Marin said while negotiating a bribe in 2014, according to hours of recordings collected by investigators.
The alleged demand for cash in exchange for steering marketing rights for major soccer tournaments to a Brazilian company will be used against Marin as he and two other former South American soccer officials become the first defendants to go to trial in a sprawling corruption investigation that has roiled FIFA, the sport’s governing body, since it was announced in 2015.
More than 40 people have pleaded guilty to participating in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes tied to the award of broadcasting and hosting rights for the World Cup and other tournaments. The case has fueled allegations of corruption in the awarding of World Cup tournaments to Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022.
The U.S. trial will begin with opening statements Monday at a federal courthouse in New York City, where investigators say illegal banking transactions related to the scheme took place. At the defense table with Marin, former president of Brazil’s soccer federation, will be Manuel Burga, former president of Peru’s soccer federation and Juan Ángel Napout, ex-president of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL and of Paraguay’s soccer federation.
The men have pleaded not guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies and are free on multimillion-dollar bonds with various travel restrictions.
Defense lawyers declined requests for comment. But at pretrial hearings, they’ve characterized the government evidence as weak and misleading.
Marin secured his bail bond with an apartment he owns in Trump Tower, once also home to Chuck Blazer , the disgraced American soccer executive whose admissions of corruption helped set off the global scandal. Blazer, 72, pleaded to racketeering, conspiracy and other counts, including admitting receiving payments in a $10 million bribe to support South Africa’s successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup, before he died this year.
The investigation has drawn intense media coverage in South America — so intense that U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen has taken the unusual step of withholding the identity of the jurors from the public to protect them from harassment. In U.S. courts, that is a security measure more common to organized crime or terrorism cases, not financial frauds.
Documents filed by the government in advance of the trial suggest Alejandro Burzaco, an Argentinian-Italian marketing executive who has pleaded guilty in exchange for a possible sentence reduction, could emerge as a key witness.
Prosecutors say Napout, 59, and Burga, 60, were among a bloc of powerful soccer officers for CONMEBOL known as the “gang of six” when Burzaco was paying the group annual six-figure bribes in exchange for getting the organization to grant broadcasting rights for the Copa Libertadores to Burzaco’s firm.
Separately, prosecutors said in court filings, unnamed co-conspirators were shelling out about $1 million a year in bribes to Marin from the firm vying for sponsorship of the Copa do Brasil tournament from 2013 to 2022.
Prosecutors said that in 2014, Marin, who is now 85, traveled to Miami for a meeting where he told an unnamed co-conspirator it was time to pay up.
“Of course, of course, of course. That money had to be given to you,” the co-conspirator assured Marin, according to court papers quoting the recordings.
“That’s it. That’s right,” Marin said.
Prosecutors are expected to call witnesses that include an owner and employee of a sports marketing company to detail how documents were shredded and a computer server scrubbed as part of a cover-up after the charges in the case were announced.
There also will be testimony about how Napout ordered electronic devices removed from his CONMEBAL office on the morning of his 2015 arrest in Zurich, Switzerland, prosecutors said in a court filing.
At another 2014 meeting involving Burzaco, the cooperating marketing executive, and other people where the bribery scheme was discussed, Burzaco made it clear he knew they were breaking the law and expressed his misgivings, the papers say of yet another recording.
“All can get hurt because of this subject,” he said. “All of us go to prison.”