Fifa de­fen­dants ‘blinded by greed’

New Straits Times - - Sport -

NEW YORK: Blinded by greed into ac­cept­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in bribes, or in­no­cent by­standers?

Pros­e­cu­tion and de­fense 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 fab­u­lously 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 US$200 mil­lion (RM840,000).

Un­veiled by then US at­tor­ney gen­eral Loretta Lynch in May 2015, the charges laid bare a quar­ter of a cen­tury of cor­rup­tion in 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 cen­ter­piece of the trial is the US gov­ern­ment’s ac­cu­sa­tions that the three de­fen­dants ac­cepted bribes to be­stow ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing rights for tour­na­ment matches, through a com­plex web of fake 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.

“They all cheated the sport,” said Edel­man.

“The ev­i­dence will show that for over 20 years, the de­fen­dants co-con­spired and abused the sys­tem,” he said, agree­ing “to re­ceive se­cret bribes, tak­ing away money that could have been spent to pro­mote the sport.”

De­fense 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 full-steam ahead,” said the Brazil­ian’s lawyer, Charles Still­man.

“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,” said Napout’s lawyer, Sil­via Pin­era.

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 ev­i­dence 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.

Around two dozen de­fen­dants have al­ready pleaded guilty, and two of them were last month sen­tenced to jail — Gu­atemalan ex­soc­cer of­fi­cial Hec­tor Tru­jillo to eight months and Bri­tish-Greek ac­coun­tant Costas Takkas to 15 months.

While the US in­ves­ti­ga­tion did not in­dict ex-Fifa pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter, he was thrown out of the sport in 2015 af­ter Fifa’s ethics com­mit­tee found him guilty of mak­ing an im­proper two mil­lion Swiss franc (RM4.5 mil­lion) pay­ment to then UEFA chief Michel Pla­tini.

Blat­ter was banned from the sport for six years, and Pla­tini, his for­mer heir ap­par­ent, for four years. AFP

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