Three fabulously wealthy and once-powerful South American soccer officials on trial in New York (L to R): Jose Maria Marin, Juan Angel Naput and Manuel Burga
New York (AFP) - Three South American former soccer officials were blinded by greed and accepted millions of dollars in bribes, US prosecutors told the FIFA corruption trial Monday as defense lawyers insisted their wealthy clients were innocent.
Forty-two officials and marketing executives, and three companies were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million.
It was the largest graft scandal in the history of world soccer, first unveiled by US government prosecutors in May 2015 and lifting the lid on a quarter of a century of endemic corruption in the heart of FIFA, soccer’s governing body.
Yet only three of them are going on trial – a trio of once-powerful soccer officials from South America, charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies.
Their fate will be decided by an anonymous jury, chosen after documented attempts at intimidation. The 12-member panel with six alternates was selected after four days of screening last week.
“Lurking underneath the surface are lies, greed and corruption,” US assistant attorney Keith Edelman told jurors in opening remarks Monday, recounting a meeting of soccer officials from all over the world at a Miami hotel in May 2014.
“Some of these officials had other reasons to celebrate, they had agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes regarding the (Copa America) tournament,” he told the federal court in Brooklyn, New York.
The most high-profile defendant is Jose Maria Marin, 85, former president of Brazil’s Football Confederation – the sport’s organizing body in one of the premier soccer-playing nations in the world.
Since extradition after his 2015 arrest by Swiss police in a five-star hotel, he has been out on bail, living in luxury at Trump Tower, the Fifth Avenue skyscraper best known for housing the penthouse and company headquarters of the US president.
Also in the dock is former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout, 59, and Manuel Burga, who led soccer in Peru until 2014 and once served as a FIFA development committee member.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
- ‘Cheated the sport’ -
“They all cheated the sport,” said Edelman of the three defendants, “in order to line their own pockets with money that should have been spent to benefit the sport.”
“The evidence will show that for over 20 years, the defendants co-conspired and abused the system,” he said.
“They agreed to receive secret bribes, taking away money that could have been spent to promote the sport.”
In their own opening statements, lawyers for the three defendants admitted there was widespread corruption at FIFA but argued that their clients were not involved.
The trial is due to last five to six weeks, and prosecutors are expected to present 350,000 pages of evidence and dozens of witnesses.
If convicted, they will be sentenced by Judge Pamela Chen. The most serious counts each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Tens of millions of dollars were hidden in offshore accounts in Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, US officials said.
Around two dozen defendants have already pleaded guilty, and two of them were last month sentenced to jail – Guatemalan ex-soccer official Hector Trujillo to eight months and British-Greek accountant Costas Takkas to 15 months.
The others who await sentencing include Jeffrey Webb, of the Cayman Islands, who admitted to receiving more than $6 million in bribes and whose millionaire lifestyle while under house arrest – quaffing champagne, gambling and partying – has infuriated FIFA’s lawyers.
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 ($2.1 million) payment to then-UEFA chief Michel Platini.
Blatter was banned from soccer for six years, and Platini, his former heir apparent, for four years.