FIFA corruption trial begins in Brooklyn

Instead of investing in stadiums and soccer leagues for women and youth, corrupt FIFA officials lined their pockets with money that could help expand the sport around the world, a Brooklyn prosecutor said Tuesday.

A lengthy corruption investigation into football’s world governing body, FIFA, has culminated in a trial that began in Brooklyn Federal Court, where executives of a broadcaster and a sports marketing company have been charged with bribery.

In an opening statement, prosecutors said two former 21st Century Fox executives, Hernan López and Carlos Martinez, teamed up with Buenos Aires-based Full Play Group SA to secure lucrative broadcast rights to South America’s premier club tournament, as well as obtain insider information. on the bidding for broadcasting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Championships in the United States.

In this courtroom sketch, former Fox chief executive Carlos Martinez (far left) sits next to his lawyers in federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, in New York City.  Two former Fox Sports executives, Martínez and Hernan López, and an Argentina-based sports marketing firm, will stand trial for paying bribes for broadcast rights to South America's premier club football tournament and the World Cup.  (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

To get inside information, the defendants used secret ledgers and coded messages to hide illegal payments.

“This is a case of corruption in international football,” prosecutor Viktor Zapana told the jury in his opening remarks. “Everyone won, except for playing football. This system of bribes has existed for years from generation to generation, because money corrupts.”

The scandal, known in some circles as the FIFA Gate, first surfaced in May 2015 in the United States and exposed millions of dollars of irregular payments from sports marketing companies to Latin football leaders.

In return, the rights to television broadcasts and promotion in tournaments were granted.

The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include wire fraud and money laundering.

A Full Play Group lawyer said the company is playing by the rules it has been given.

Mailing Blanco’s lawyer stated that the alleged illegal payments were “expected, requested and even demanded” by South American football officials.

“It’s a longstanding practice to demand payment,” Blanco said. “They have been doing business this way for generations.”

Lopez’s lawyer, John Gleason, told jurors that his client was unaware of the bribes and reported them to Fox immediately upon learning of them.

Gleason said that after Lopez blew the whistle, his information sparked an internal investigation at Fox.

“The evidence will show that he had no reason to be involved in this crime,” Gleason said. “He did exactly what a good leader would do, what a good citizen would do. Hernan immediately turned him over and helped in any way he could.”

Stephen McCool, a lawyer representing Martinez, focused his introduction on discrediting Alejandro Burzaco, an Argentine sports marketing executive who defense lawyers say is a star witness in the case.

“[The government] built their business on the back of a bad guy,” McCool said. “Burzaco’s shifting stories… will show you that you can’t believe him.”

He defended the innocence of his client. “Carlos was a destructive force… Carlos Martinez didn’t take bribes,” he said.

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