Football & The Law: The “FIFA Trial” – Week One
Should 280-character tweets be a thing? Dunno. However, “Buzzfeed News Reporter” Ken Bensinger has used the new limit superbly to tell as much of the whole story of the “Fifa Trial” as possible via twitter from court. In English AND Spanish.
And the first week of the estimated six-week trial has been a VERY whole story. It is easy to ridicule rich Fifa grotesques and their greed for more money than they could physically spend. However, this week has been touched by tragedy and behaviour more in-keeping with the “mob trial” some observers predicted.
In the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse dock in New York’s legal Eastern District are three leading South American “soccer” officials (New York football is the Mets, Giants, helmets, pads and stripy-shirted refs). Jose Maria Marin, one of a production-line of allegedly corrupt-as-f**k Brazilian federation (CBF) chiefs, Juan Angel Napout, Fifa ex-vice-president and ex-chief of South America’s Confederation, Conmebol and Manuel Burga, Peru’s federation (FPF) ex-president.
Marin was indicted, and collared in 27th May 2015’s famous dawn raids on Zurich’s Baur-au-Lac hotel, hours before Fifa’s annual congress. Napout and Burga were in the lesser-known sequel, the December 2015 indictments and arrests (still a great movie, though). Napout was nabbed at the Baur-au-Lac (kudos to whichever dozy Fifa functionary re-booked that hotel). Burga was nicked outside his Lima home and extradited to America a year later.
They are the only Fifa indictees to plead not guilty to United States’ Department of Justice (DoJ) charges, rather than plead guilty, whistle-blow, or cower from justice, like the repugnant Jack Warner. They are charged with multi-million-dollar racketeering, wire-fraud and money-laundering conspiracies.
A common theme of recent high-profile United States investigations is the use of informants. Most recently, George Papadopoulos hugely improved Americans’ Greek pronunciation through his involvement in the investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s US presidential election campaigners.
Fifa’s indictments largely stemmed from large former vice-president Chuck Blazer’s testimony to, and covert evidence-gathering for, America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). And allegations against many officials were evidenced in court by 53-year-old Argentine businessman Alejandro Burzaco. His testimony was dramatic, for its wide-ranging content and ‘damning’ in-court reviews. However, he is comprehensively NOT one of the good guys.
He was sports marketeers Torneos y Competenecias CEO from 2006 until a week after the 2015 indictments/arrests. He wasn’t in his Bar-au-Lac room on 27th May. But he soon surrendered. He pled guilty in 2016 to fraud, money laundering, and racketeering conspiring, despite already being filthy rich, having made $30m as a Citigroup banker.
In last Monday’s opening statements, defence attorneys called Burzaco and other potential DoJ (government) witnesses “liars.” Burga’s combative representative, Bruce L. Udolf, labelled them among “the most corrupt people on Earth” who could “get pretty darn creative” when given “every incentive to point a finger at as many people as possible.”
True. But Udolf was ‘playing the man,’ in football parlance, a common defence of the indefensible. Marin’s lawyer, Charles A. Stillman offered another football analogy. “If you watch kids playing soccer,” he told New York jurors who probably hadn’t, “there are always one or two not really playing.” His 85-year-old client was “on the side picking up daisies.”
Nothing known about Marin suggests horticultural tendencies, even as a kid. And the idea sounded as intelligence-insulting as classless media baron Rupert Murdoch’s “doddery old sod” act for a UK parliamentary committee in 2011, during the phone-hacking crisis.
Another superficially unlikely Stillman football analogy was CBF chief Marin being “on the field but not playing the game” while vice-president, Marco Polo Del Nero, negotiated bribes. After all, Marin only became president on a “technicality,” the oldest official automatically replacing presidents who step down mid-term. Stillman ‘forgot’ that this “technicality” was previous president Ricardo Teixeira’s March 2012 ‘resignation’ (inverted commas appropriate, regular readers know the drill).
Del Nero became president on the “technicality” of Marin’s arrest, and is reportedly “quietly planning” another presidential campaign. Yet he was another 27th May indictee, who hasn’t left Brazil since, for genuine fear of arrest. If there’s an appropriate Portuguese phrase with the acronym FFS, the CBF should be called it.
Napout’s legal-eagle, Silvia B. Piñera-Vazquez, mounted a less loopy defence, including the lack of evidence that Napout was “ever paid one penny.” The case was “about a government concluding that everyone involved at high levels of soccer is dirty” (well…er…). But she admitted: “Many areas of foreign soccer are corrupt,” unlike US Soccer under…no…NO. Another time. Allegedly.
“The FBI did a wonderful job,” Piñera-Vazquez patronised. “But they didn’t find one wire-transfer of dirty money into Juan’s accounts.” Which, given he was allegedly bribed in cash, wasn’t necessarily news.
Rational parts of Burga’s defence followed similar lines. Burga allegedly asked bribers not to pay him “until the coast is clear,” with Peruvian money-laundering investigators supposedly pursuing him. Udolf called the claim that Burga accepted bribes without receiving any “about the most outrageous I have ever heard a government lawyer make.”
The prosecution’s opening statement came from Keith D. Edelman (US attorneys and their middle initials), definitely NOT Arsenal’s ex-managing director Keith, no “D,” Edelman, although things would be fun if it was. US assistant-attorney Edelman has ample mob-trial experience, far outweighing any dealings with Arsene Wenger and David Dein…presumably.
The “anti-mafia prosecutor” focused on May 2014 celebrations in Miami of a deal to hold South America’s Euros equivalent in the United States in its centenary year, 2016, the “Copa America Centenario” (CAC). A “proud moment for soccer,” undermined by “lies, greed and corruption.”
Some attendees “had a different reason to celebrate,” having “agreed to receive millions in bribes” from sports marketeers bidding for “incredibly valuable” broadcast rights to Conmebol tournaments, including the CAC.” The defendants “didn’t make the decisions” to award rights “openly or honestly” but “cheated (football) to line their own pockets.”
Convictions in this case will surely boost prospects for convictions from fugitives from justice, including Del Nero and the repugnant Warner, should they ever reach America. There is, therefore, lots riding on this trial for everyone. And everyone knows it, hence the pre-trial tensions surrounding jury security. But if things were tense BEFORE Burzaco testified on Tuesday…
His first big reveal was Fox Sports’ appearance among six major sports media companies he personally knew paid bribes (time for Murdoch’s “doddery old man” persona again?). Among the dirty-half-dozen were Fifa broadcast rights scandal stalwarts Mexico’s Televisa and Brazil’s TV Globo.
Former Conmebol presidents, and therefore Fifa veeps, Paraguay’s Nicolas Leoz and Uruguay’s Eugenio Figuerdo were among the bribe beneficiaries, Figuerdo (a Fifa finance committee member, natch) receiving a “special bribe for contract extensions.” And Burzaco dished detailed dirt on former close colleague and friend, fellow-Argentine Julio Grondona, Fifa’s FINANCE committee chair and senior veep until his 2014 death.
(So many Fifa veeps involved, while literally sat alongside ex-president Sepp Blatter in Fifa’s boardroom. Yet, because “the confederations” chose them, the gnomic Swiss dodgepot saw nothing, even when making Grondona finance committee chair. Lucky for football that Blatter’s peripheral vision was sh*te because he was too focused on his own role to notice the corruption.)
Grondona “authorised and allocated” bribes from T&T Sports Marketing for Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamerica rights, Conmebol’s Champions and Europa League equivalents (T&T are 75% owned by Fox Sports, with five directors each from Fox and Torneos). Bribe “allocations” were in cash, many to…himself.
Grondona also received what Burzaco called “the presidential treatment” at Conmebol events. Travel by private jet and Mercedes Sedans, with no customs/immigration checks. Teixeira likewise, with Burzaco telling of his “very unusual and weird” banking instructions.
The most resonant revelation was Grondona pocketing $1m to vote for Qatar to host 2022’s World Cup. This “sworn testimony,” wrote the Guardian’s Oliver Laughland, was “some of the strongest evidence the 2022 vote was tainted.” In the face of considerable competition. The $1m was a bribe owed to Teixeira, who could hardly press charges when Grondona “reallocated” it.
Grondona also told Burzaco of a glorious behind-the-scenes farce at the vote. Despite bribe offers to back Qatar, Leoz chose Japan, then South Korea, supporting Qatar only after Grondona and Teixeira angrily confronted him…in the gents’ loo. This tallies with the book “The Ugly Game,” which told a tale of three voters who didn’t “behave” as Qatari bid kingpin Mohammed Bin Hammam “had hoped.” Few would have chosen Leoz as one of the recalcitrant trio.
It soon seemed easier for Burzaco to list the officials NOT bribed. And he named innocent names, including Chilean ex-FA chief Harold Mayne-Nicholls, banned from football for supposedly seeking favours from Qatar’s 2022 bid team, in Blatter’s clearest (ab)use of Fifa’s Ethics Committee (Mayne-Nicholls dared to suggest opposing Blatter for Fifa’s presidency in 2011).
But Wednesday was a darker day, beginning with Burzaco crying in the dock and being escorted away. This was initially attributed to the awful news that former Argentine government lawyer Jorge Delhón had fallen under a train near Buenos Aires, hours after Burzaco testified that Delhon took bribes.
“It is being called a suicide but none of us know for sure,” presiding US District Judge Pamela Chen said, unhelpfully. And suspicions of foul play persist, with Argentine authorities reportedly investigating whether Delhon and/or his family received death threats.
Delhon worked for the “Soccer for Everyone” programme, founded by former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, herself indicted in an Argentine corruption case last December. The programme broadcast matches for free but had…yep…financial integrity issues, after a damning government audit in 2015.
Burzaco was subsequently questioned by Piñera-Vazquez about facilitating meetings between Kirchner and Fox International CEO, Hernan Lopez. “Surely not the last we will hear of Argentine government officials, New York Times case reporter Rebecca R Ruiz tweeted wearily on Thursday.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Burzaco’s tears had followed Burga making an apparent “throat-slitting” gesture at him. Defence attorneys initially cited a staring contest between Burzaco and Napout or Burga (I’ve seen photos of Napout…he’d win, SCARILY). But when video emerged of Burga gesturing with his finger on his neck, Udolf claimed he was scratching his throat due to “dermatitis” caused by “the climate in New York.”
This alleged, direct “witness-tampering” may become a separate case. Judge Chen ordered severe restrictions on Burga’s use of phones and computers (though not, yet, fingers and throats), giving Udolf another water-muddying opportunity, claiming that Burga’s right to a fair trial was threatened. Burzaco, he said, was “a serial liar (who) will say anything,”
But Burzaco didn’t wilt under cross-examination, Bensinger calling him “extremely well-prepared and highly precise.” Piñera-Vazquez implied that Burzaco’s brother, Argentina’s current defence secretary, utilised “millions” of Burzaco’s offshore stash. To which Burzaco track-stoppingly replied that his brother would only use that money “in case I would die.”
Leoz, he testified, “would confuse his personal finances” with Conmebol’s, ‘confusion’ which once directed $5m from Fifa to the ‘wrong’ account. Without Blatter noticing. Torneos also paid Argentina’s national team $200,000 before friendly matches, which, it was “often said,” was dependent on Lionel Messi playing. Messi himself would distribute this “bonus” among “all his team-mates.”
He reckoned he/Torneos paid about $160m to bribe about 30 people. A price that ordinary TV viewers have paid/will pay through increased subscriptions. As Burzaco testified from direct experience, prices were “affected positively by the bribes already paid.” Not a DoJ indictment. But surely the most damning indictment of all.
Burzaco’s testimony has had considerable impact. Argentine and Mexican authorities are currently in a tizzy. And Paraguayan Judge Umberto Otazu authorised Leoz’s extradition to the US, subject to medical reports on the 89-year-old who gets “confused” by $5m. Leoz’s lawyer, Ricardo Preda, announced an appeal. And Leoz will doubtless take a Warner-esque obstructionist tack, partly because “private” bribery is, Reuters reported, “not a punishable crime in Paraguay.”
Bensinger wonderfully highlighted an underlying “message”: “How little trust there was among these bribe-paying marketing executives and bribe-taking officials. Even people conspiring together were suspicious their partners were screwing them. And, they often were.”
As proper court reporters say, “the case continues.”