Two ex-South American soccer officials convicted in FIFA bribery case

(Reuters) - A New York jury on Friday found two former South American soccer officials guilty of taking bribes in exchange for the award of valuable marketing and media rights to international matches, the first trial verdicts in a U.S. probe of world soccer’s governing body FIFA.

Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay, former head of South American governing body CONMEBOL, and former Brazilian soccer chief Jose Maria Marin were convicted of corruption charges brought by U.S. prosecutors in 2015.

Marin was found guilty of six counts, including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. The jury cleared him on another count of money laundering conspiracy.

Napout was found guilty on three counts, including racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. He was cleared on two counts of money laundering conspiracy.

The jury did not reach a verdict in the case against Manuel Burga, former president of the Peruvian soccer federation, and the judge said the jury should return on Tuesday to deliberate.

The three men were the first to stand trial on charges brought by U.S. prosecutors in 2015 as part of investigations that shook up FIFA.

“We are obviously disappointed but will continue to seek justice for our client,” Marin’s lawyer, Charles Stillman, said in an email.

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Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, a lawyer for Napout, declined to comment except to express disappointment with the verdict. Burga’s lawyer declined to comment.

In a statement FIFA said it was a victim of the alleged wrongdoing and “will now take all necessary steps to seek restitution and recover all losses.”

Prosecutors have charged 42 people and entities in the case, at least 24 of whom have pleaded guilty. Several of those testified for prosecutors in the trial, telling of corruption that went far beyond the three defendants in the courtroom.

Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, told jurors that he paid bribes to all three defendants to secure rights to matches including the Copa America and Copa Libertadores. Burzaco had pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Burzaco also said that Fox Sports, Mexico’s Grupo Televisa and Brazil’s Globo paid bribes for media rights to games. Fox and Globo have denied these allegations. Televisa declined to comment immediately after Burzaco’s testimony.

Burzaco also said that Qatar bribed officials of soccer’s world governing body FIFA to host the 2022 World Cup. Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, which is organizing the 2022 World Cup, has denied the allegations.

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“It is all hearsay and there is no evidence,” al-Thawadi said at a public event in November after Burzaco’s testimony, according to a representative of the committee. “We are confident in the integrity of our bid.”

Santiago Pena, a former financial manager at Argentine sports marketing firm Full Play, walked the jury through a spreadsheet detailing what he said were payments to eight CONMEBOL officials, including Napout and Burga.

The trial was marred by tragedy in its first week, when Argentine police said that Jorge Delhon, a former lawyer for the country’s Futbol Para Todos (Soccer for All), program had committed suicide after Burzaco named him in his testimony.

The next day, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen put Burga under house arrest after prosecutors said he threatened Burzaco by making a slicing motion across his throat. She cast doubt on the cause of Delhon’s death, saying, “You can call it a suicide. The truth is none of us know that for sure.”

Burga’s lawyer, Bruce Udolf, denied that his client threatened Burzaco.

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; additional reporting by Anthony Lin and Brendan Pierson; editing by Noeleen Walder and Leslie Adler