Ex-Nicaraguan soccer official pleads guilty in U.S. bribery case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former FIFA official from Nicaragua who was responsible for overseeing the soccer governing body’s development efforts in Central America pleaded guilty on Wednesday to U.S. charges stemming from a wide-ranging bribery investigation.

Former FIFA and Nicaraguan soccer official Julio Rocha exits following his hearing at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Julio Rocha, who is also a former president of the Nicaraguan soccer federation, pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to charges of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy, prosecutors said.

A lawyer for Rocha declined comment.

As part of his plea, Rocha, 66, agreed to forfeit over $292,000, prosecutors said. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each count.

Rocha is one of 42 people and entities charged as part of a U.S. investigation that upended Zurich-based FIFA and the soccer world. To date, 20 people and two companies have pleaded guilty in connection with the probe.

Prosecutors said the defendants engaged in more than $200 million in bribes and kickbacks that were sought and received by soccer officials for marketing and broadcasting rights to tournaments and matches.

Rocha was extradited in May from Switzerland, where a year earlier he was one of seven soccer officials arrested at a Zurich hotel as U.S. prosecutors unveiled the first wave of charges in the case.

Rocha was president of the Nicaraguan soccer federation, the Federacion Nicaraguense de Futbol, from 1998 to 2012, and was president of the Central American Football Union from 2003 to 2007. He became a FIFA development officer based in Panama in 2013.

Prosecutors said Rocha accepted over $150,000 in bribes to help the Miami unit of sports marketing firm Traffic Group obtain the media and marketing rights for the Nicaraguan soccer team’s qualifier matches for multiple World Cup editions, including the 2014 and 2018 ones.

Prosecutors said even after he stepped down as the federation’s president, Rocha kept trying to obtain bribes in connection with the Traffic Group unit’s negotiations for the rights to the Nicaragua’s 2022 World Cup qualifier matches.

Prior to his plea, Rocha had been one of five defendants set to face trial in November 2017.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler