Defendants ‘blinded by greed’
BLINDED by greed into accepting millions of dollars in bribes, or merely innocent bystanders? Prosecution and defence lawyers opened the FIFA corruption trial on Monday, two and a half years after the United States unveiled the largest graft scandal in the history of world soccer.
In the dock are three incredibly wealthy South American former football officials from Brazil, Paraguay and Peru, who are charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies. All have pleaded not guilty.
They are just a fraction of the 42 officials and marketing executives, not to mention three companies, indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million.
Unveiled by then-US attorney general Loretta Lynch in May 2015, the charges laid bare a quarter of a century of corruption at the heart of FIFA, football’s governing body.
“Lurking underneath the surface are lies, greed and corruption,” assistant attorney Keith Edelman told jurors on Monday, recounting a meeting of officials in Miami in 2014 to celebrate the upcoming 2016 Copa America tournament in the United States.
“Some of these officials had other reasons to celebrate. They had agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes regarding the tournament,” Edelman told the federal court in Brooklyn.
The centrepiece of the trial is the US government’s accusations the three defendants accepted bribes to bestow advertising and marketing rights for tournament matches, through a complex web of fa ke contracts, shell companies and wire transfers.
The most high-profile defendant is Jose Maria Marin, 85, former president of Brazil’s Football Confederation – the sport’s organising body in one of the top football-playing nations in the world who has been living on bail at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
His fellow defendants are former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout, 59, from Paraguay, who was elected president of CONMEBOL in 2014, and Manuel Burga, who led football in Peru until 2014 and once served as a FIFA development committee member.
Government witnesses criticised
“They all cheated the sport,” said Edelman. “The evidence will show that for over 20 years the defendants coconspired and abused the system,” he said, agreeing “to receive secret bribes, taking away money that could have been spent to promote the sport”.
Defence lawyers admitted widespread corruption at FIFA but said there was no evidence that their clients were involved, and sought to discredit government witnesses who are likely to include those who cut plea bargain deals in the case.
“Marin was not one of them. He is like the youngster standing to the side while the others are running fullsteam ahead,” said the Brazilian’s lawyer, Charles Stillman.
Napout’s lawyer, Silvia Pinera, said: “We don’t dispute that a lot of aspects of international soccer are corrupt. But your one duty is to decide whether Juan was involved.”
Burga’s lawyer Bruce Udolf said his client “was not part of it”.
“They are probably some of the most corrupt people in the world . . . They are looking at 60 years in prison if they don’t cooperate,” he said of prospective government witnesses. “It can make someone quite creative when it comes to describing corruption.”
The trial is due to last five to six weeks, and prosecutors are expected to present hundreds of thousands of pages of ev idence and dozens of witnesses.
Their fate will be decided by an anonymous jury, chosen after documented attempts at intimidation. If convicted, they will be sentenced by Judge Pamela Chen. The most serious counts each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Paraguayan former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout (centre) arrives at Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York on Monday.