The FIFA Trial: Week Four – Kevin Jonas & Other Recording Stars 

by | Dec 13, 2017

The prosecution in the Fifa trial at New York’s Brooklyn Federal Court began week four expecting to rest by Wednesday. They ended week four expecting to rest by…erm…Wednesday. In-between, another week of testimony about grubby money-grabbing. Oh…and Kevin Jonas.

Yes. THE Kevin Jonas. Once one of the “sexiest men alive”? From popular beat combo, the “Jonas Brothers”? No, me neither. Nevertheless, his descent from “pop-rock” super-starletdom to Fifa’s murky world promised to be a lurid tale.

Jonas blamed Traffic. And the Brazilian sports marketing company (SMC) of that name edged towards the centre of attention last week, thanks to the lengthy testimony of, and secret recordings made by, its former CEO, former football journalist (dodgy breed, them) Jose Hawilla, the latest rogue in the Fifa miscreants’ gallery to grass to the United States authorities’ investigation into what the AFP news agency called “a quarter-century of endemic corruption.”

There was no descent from “pop-rock” anything, of course (how could you “descend from pop-rock anyway?). And when Jonas blamed Traffic, he meant traffic. Y’know, cars etc. His short but, according to BuzzFeed reporter Ken Bensinger, sweet testimony, was bizarre, not lurid.

Attorneys of Juan Angel Napout, ex-president of South American confederation Conmebol (“Conme”), have denied everything, including his attendance at a Paul McCartney concert in Buenos Aires in 2010. Well, you WOULD, wouldn’t you? However, this denial stretched to the concert ever happening, never mind Napout receiving $10,175.88 for tickets, as Santiago Peña, “in charge” of Argentine SMC Full Play Group’s bribery ledger, previously testified.

Jonas knew it happened, because he was there. He even testified to missing McCartney’s first two songs, due to traffic. All nuts. But it may prove a smart move. The prosecution could have provided lower-key evidence that the concert happened but presumably figured that Jonas would make more of an impact upon Brooklyn jurors, as his band sold millions of records in the US before their split in 2014 (I know too much).

And if Napout’s attorneys could deny the existence of a concert with 60,000 witnesses, what would they NOT deny? Mind you, Sports Illustrated magazine reporter Daniel Rapaport had “a free tip” for them: “Bring the song ‘Year 3000’ to the courtroom’s attention. How can you trust a man who has claimed to have been to the Year 3000?” Well…quite.

Perhaps the most important part of the week took place away from the jury, on Friday, when the two most vociferous defence attorneys explored technicality number 94 for acquitting their clients. One surprising revelation from the Fifa corruption scandal was that “commercial” bribery is not criminal in Switzerland. Nor in Brazil, Argentina or Paraguay, it transpires. The attorneys were semi-desperate to tell the jury, as much of the case has centred on Argentine and Brazilian SMCs, and Napout being Paraguayan.

The prosecution, however, could point to the words “United States Code” throughout the relevant indictments The US Department of Justice (DoJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have led the process. And the trial is in Brooklyn. All clues to any clued-up juror that South American laws were not key. Indeed, the US could only BE involved with alleged offences with a US link, bank accounts, emails, wire transfer facilities etc…

The prosecution also argued that the legality of bribery was not relevant to charges which were based on the defendants’ abuse of power within their particular football authorities. Fifa and Conme were the relevant jurisdictions and their regulations, however wavy a gesture they may be, were being breached. However, they were still not keen for jurors to know about legal bribes anywhere, in case that prejudiced jurors’ thoughts, regardless of legal fact.

Presiding US District Judge Pamela Chen produced a ruling straight from the Brexit deal playbook. Bribery legality would be irrelevant, thus inadmissible, testimony. But defendants could “reasonably” testify that their actions were somehow dictated by that. The prosecution accepted this, aware that the defendants were very unlikely to testify and open themselves to cross-examination of a defence case so heavily based on legal technicalities (especially Brazil’s Jose Maria Marin, whose major defence has been his age-induced cluelessness).

The defence’s considered, proportionate response was to request a mistrial, to which Judge Chen said “foxtrot oscar” in legalese. Still, this gambit was surely better than suggesting that Napout, the former Conme president, could not be charged for breaching Conme regulations as he’d never read them. Yes, really. Of course, the idea that Napout never bothered with regulations isn’t unreasonable per se. But as a defence against charges in THIS case? Foxtrot Oscar.

The defence had a pressurised week. Hawilla’s “live” testimony and secret recordings dominated. But the 74-y-o cut a forlorn, haggard figure, testifying while using an oxygen tank. Judge Chen let him go half-an-hour early on his first day, because he was visibly tired and audibly confused.

Hawilla testified to making his bribery debut in January 1991. He recalled the amount, for rights to three Copa America tournaments, as $400-600,000 (a lot of bribery in those days) and “regretted” his actions because it let bribe recipient and then-Conme chief Nicolas Leoz “demand money at every contract renewal.”

Nevertheless, he spent 23 years paying ever-higher bribes, pleading that he was “practically forced (into it).” And his disaffection may have been heightened when Traffic were edged out of the bribery picture in 2010 by the “Group of Six” federation presidents, who wanted to edge their way into it. “You cannot break a valid contract,” Hawilla complained to Go6’s Luis Chiriboga, Ecuador’s federation chief. “I can. And I just did,” Chiriboga replied. And a prosecution witness was born.

Hawilla pleaded guilty in December 2014 to the usual fraud/racket/laundering stuff. But he had secretly recorded conversations with fellow Brazilians, including Marin, since that April. There had been little evidence against the last-but-one Brazil federation (CBF) boss. There’s plenty now.

“Copa do Brasil” (CdB) rights were especially popular. And many millions went to “MPM,” according to presented documentation. The prosecution claimed “MPM” was short-hand for Marin (M) and Marco Polo (MP) Del Nero, the indicted current CBF president who remains in Brazil, protected by Brazil not extraditing its citizens.

Many recorded phone conversations were with Kleber Leite, owner of Brazilian SMC Klefer. Snippets released to media outlets suggested the recordings were poor quality. But the words were damning. Everyone knew the risks. Mariano Jinkis, Full Play’s co-owner, forecast “pay-offs forever.” And Alejandro Burzaco, former CEO of Argentine SMC Torneos and star of the trial’s first week, warned that if they were investigated, “We are all prisoners.” Only Leite realised that careless talk could cost bribes: “The phone is a very dangerous thing. We’d better talk about this in person.”

Hawilla testified that Leite had phoned him to confirm an “agreement to pay bribes,” $1.5m split between the last three CBF chiefs: bribe veteran Ricardo Teixeira, Del Nero and…Marin. Marin met Hawilla and his microphone in a Miami eatery and when Hawilla asked after his CdB payments, Marin declared: “We have settled everything.”

Recordings also suggested Teixeira received CdB bribes even after resigning as CBF president in March 2012. And when Hawilla asked Leite if Del Nero and Marin “know you’re paying Ricardo more?” Leite replied: “Of course they know!” Leite also admitted “the one for Marin” was shared with Del Nero. He hadn’t “the slightest idea” how. But the “how” wasn’t what mattered.

Bensinger tweeted “BOOM” when prosecutors revealed Marin’s personal account with investment bankers Morgan Stanley, under the name Firelli International. And they linked numerous payments to “FPT Sports’” Swiss bank account, which belonged to Torneos.

Many payments matched entries in Torneos’ secret bribe-ledger, about which former administrator Eliadio Rodriguez previously testified. Those headed “Brasiliero” went to the CBF chiefs. And the Firelli account facilitated luxury spending in Hermes, Chanel and other swanky outlets. Bensinger recalled Marin’s wife wearing “black Chanel shoes” to the trial’s opening. “BOOM”, indeed.

However, the defence still punted their usual line that nobody witnessed a “penny” in bribes being paid. They said Hawilla betrayed former friends for a “deal” from prosecutors and that he had not met its financial obligations, despite owning two Brazilian TV stations and a real estate company (he agreed to forfeit $151m but still owes $100m+, blaming an unsurprising difficulty selling Traffic). As if financial and personal untrustworthiness were rare among this trial’s protagonists.

Former Traffic USA boss Fabio Tordin was another briber after a deal, approaching the authorities in November 2015 with tales of bribes for Central American federations’ rights to future World Cup qualifiers. The inevitable, repugnant Jack Warner appeared in his capacity as Caribbean Football Union president, cancelling World Cup qualifiers’ rights deals with Media World, for whom Tordin worked from 2011, and travelling to Miami to tell Tordin the CFU were staying with Traffic for “internal” reasons he could not explain. Uh-huh.

However, Tordin’s back-pocket was rarely empty. He testified to his ‘arrangement’ with fellow-indictee Miguel Trujillo, who followed Tordin’s career path from Traffic to prosecution witness. They negotiated bribe figures with federations, told Media World that the bribes were a higher figure…and pocketed the difference.

After tale-upon-tale of alleged thieves’ nefarious activities (“Fifa trial hears of dancing, private jet, massages,” read one, perhaps over-salacious, headline), it was almost cleansing to hear from someone with (hopefully) empty back-pockets. US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Steve Berryman (yes, Spurs fans, I first read that as “Perryman” too) detailed the labyrinthine process of turning seemingly legitimate payments into bribes, via offshore bank accounts and shell companies.

(One such company, Cross Trading, was based on South Pacific island Niue, an “Area of the Realm of New Zealand,” whose governor-general has THE name for this trial of turncoat witnesses, secretly-recorded testimony and financial misdeeds. Dame…Patsy Reddy).

Berryman had what AFP’s Laura Bonilla called “overwhelming data” on thousands of financial transactions and defendants’ activities; dates, times, flights, hotels, bank accounts etc… Prosecutors could therefore synchronise ‘bribes’ received with ‘bribes’ paid, and, for instance, show Napout “travelling to Buenos Aires every time he supposedly received payments,” which was key, as he denies receiving bribes via bank transfers.

Napout’s lawyer, Silvia Piñera-Vasquez, seemed “overwhelmed” by this “data” and pressed Berryman, rather tangentially, on why he used so few photographs from Napout’s office computer, which had been “spirited away in a van” (neat trick, that) when Napout was arrested. “You didn’t think there could be a smoking gun?” she asked. As the Law 360 website’s Sindhu Sindar noted, Berryman “simply responded that the FBI, not the IRS” searched the computer.

The prosecution rested as I typed a now-deleted paragraph on proceedings being “over by Christmas.” And they should be. All three defence attorneys have “declined to mount an affirmative defence of their clients.” Closing arguments begin today (Wednesday) and the jury should begin deliberating by Friday.

The case continues…but not for long.