By Paul Nicholson
November 14 – With jury selection complete, the trial of three South American former football administrators began in earnest with opening statements on Monday in the Brooklyn Federal court.
José Maria Marin, 85, former head of Brazil’s football federation, Juan Ángel Napout, 59, the Paraguayan who was president of South American confederation Conmebol, and Manuel Burga, 60, the former president of the Peruvian football federation, have all denied multiple counts of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering.
Of 42 people charged in indictments unsealed in 2015, they are the only three held in the US who have pleaded not guilty. 24 have pleaded guilty and two have been sentenced so far.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Edelman told jurors, who are being kept in anonymity and bused to the courtroom under security due to fears of witness intimidation, that “the defendants cheated the sport in order to line their pockets with money that should have been spent to benefit the game, not themselves.” Edelman reiterated the prosecutor’s theme of the two sentencings that have taken place so far that money they pocketed could have been spent to build pitches, buy equipment and fund women’s teams and youth leagues.
Edelman said that they regularly took six-figure bribes amounting to millions over time for the marketing rights to major tournaments and competitions including the Copa America and Copa Libertadores.
He highlighted the May 2014 the launch of the Copa America 2016 – the first time the tournament was hosted outside South America and organised jointly by CONCACAF and Conmebol tournament – saying: “By all appearances it’s a proud moment in the history of the game. There are drinks, press conferences but underneath the surface are lies, greed, corruption. Some of these officials had other reasons to celebrate, they had agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes regarding the tournament.”
Edelman said evidence would include witness testimony, bank records, covert recordings and other documentation that proves each of the officials had received bribes.
One element of intrigue in the case is the identity of who US District Judge Pamela Chen has described as “four sensitive names” who may appear as witnesses, and how they should be handled. There is no real indication who these names are and the nature of this sensitivity.
In response the lawyers for the accused argued that their clients were not part of the corruption and that the prosecutor’s evidence is based on testimony of those who have pleaded guilty and are trying to cut a better deal for their own sentencing.
Former Torneos y Competencias marketing agency boss Alejandro Burzaco is expected to be a key government witness. According to Napout’s attorney, Silvia Pinera, he was given a “sweetheart deal” after he “turned himself in and began telling stories”. She also accused the US government of paying other guilty officials to remain in the country to testify and even providing their families with US visas.
“They’ve been here for years on our dimes,” she said. “We’re the taxpayer.”
Bruce Udolf, for Burga, said the government had “simply gone too far” and “simply got it wrong”. “They’ve made a lot of righteous charges against a lot of bad people. But Manuel Burga is not one of them,” he said. Regarding the witnesses he said they were motivated to “get pretty doggone creative”.
But perhaps the prize for most loquaciously creative defence goes to Marin’s lawyer, Charles Stillman, who likened corruption in international soccer to a children’s soccer game in which Marin did not participate. “He was kind of like the youngster standing off to the side, picking up daisies and looking around while others are running full steam ahead.” Not sure Brazilian football observers see it quite like that but it is an interesting image nonetheless.
None of the defending lawyers denied there was financial corruption within the South and North American and game.
Contact the writer of this story at email@example.com