Prosecutor says 3 soccer officials made fortune off bribes
NEW YORK (AP) Prosecutors in closing arguments at the first U.S. trial stemming from the FIFA corruption scandal accused three former South American soccer officials on Wednesday of making themselves rich off a vast bribery scheme while their defense lawyers called the evidence too weak to convict.
The high-ranking officials ”took money for themselves instead of putting the interests of the soccer organizations first,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Mace said in federal court in New York.
The prosecutor at one point showed the jury an undated portrait of the defendants superimposed with the total amounts of bribes they allegedly agreed to collect from 2010 to 2016 in exchange for influencing awards of lucrative commercial rights to the sport’s biggest tournaments: $4.4 million for Manuel Burga, $6.55 million for Jose Maria Marin and $10.5 million for Juan Angel Napout.
In his closing, Napout’s lawyer agreed U.S. investigators had uncovered widespread corruption in international soccer. But he argued that the trial had succeeded only in proving the guilt of the sports marketing executives who testified for the government, not that of the defendants.
Prosecutors ”were overconfident in their investigation and they were just too trusting of their cooperators,” said the attorney, John Pappalardo.
Closing arguments at the trial, now in its fifth week, were expected to conclude Thursday afternoon.
Napout is the former president of Paraguay’s soccer federation; Burga, the former head of Peru’s soccer federation; and Marin, the former president of Brazil’s soccer federation. All have pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy in a case that has captivated South American soccer fans.
Mace, in her closing argument, told jurors that for sports marketing firms, paying bribes was a routine cost of doing business. The arrangements deliberately sabotaged fair and open bidding for the commercial contracts that could have preserved the integrity of the sport and produced better deals for the soccer federations, she added.
”To get the contract signed, they had to pay,” the prosecutor said. ”And to avoid competition, they had to pay.”
Prosecutors have sought to build their case on the testimony of marketing executives who have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against the defendants, secretly recorded conversations about the bribes and internal documents including ledgers detailing the amounts paid.
On Wednesday, Mace recalled the testimony of a cooperator who testified about a ledger that listed the bribes for Napout as ”Honda” and included one entry for Paul McCartney concert tickets worth more than $10,000.
After the defense questioned whether the McCartney concert actually took place, the government called Kevin Jonas, a former member of the pop sensation Jonas Brothers, to testify that he attended the show on Nov. 11, 2010, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Napout took the occasion to collect a $200,000 bribe that day, prosecutors said.
Napout’s attorney argued that the prosecution had failed to produce records of wire transfers or large bank deposits that could prove he was receiving piles of bribe money. Nor was there any evidence that his client made extravagant purchases, he said.
”They say cash is king, but where did it go?” Pappalardo said. ”There was not one penny they could trace to Juan.”
The government’s star witness, Argentine businessman Alejandro Burzaco, should be viewed as a con man and the scheme’s main culprit, said Bruce Udolf, the lawyer for Burga.
”He’s made a fortune paying off people and cheating them,” the lawyer said.
The sprawling FIFA investigation has resulted in charges against more than 40 soccer officials, marketing executives and entities.