2 officials convicted at FIFA trial; 3rd awaits verdict

Two former South American soccer officials were convicted Friday of corruption charges at a U.S. trial stemming from the FIFA bribery scandal, while deliberations will continue next week for a third official.

A federal jury deliberated a week before reaching the partial verdict in New York.

Jose Maria Marin, of Brazil, and Juan Angel Napout, of Paraguay, were convicted of the top count they faced, racketeering conspiracy. Jurors were undecided on Manuel Burga, the former president of Peru’s soccer federation.

The three 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.

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 other charges. Both were acquitted of some lesser counts.

The 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 committed suicide 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.

Marin, Burga and Napout were among more than 40 people 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.

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 until his arrest in 2015. 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,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Nitze said in closing arguments. “There are cases that present mysteries to be solved – whodunnits. This is not one of them.”

Prosecutors said Burga took $4.4 million in bribes, Marin took $6.6 million and Napout collected $10.5 million.

The defence argued that the men were innocent bystanders framed by Burzaco and other untrustworthy co-operators 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.”

The lawyer for Marin, who is 85, called him 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, whose lawyer made similar arguments, 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.

One witness described a secret ledger that listed bribes for Napout, including an entry for Paul McCartney concert tickets worth more than $10,000.

After the defence questioned whether the concert actually took place, the government called the musician and actor Kevin Jonas to testify that he attended the show as a spectator.

Another co-operator, 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.”

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