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Ex-Fox execs face bribery claims at FIFA trial

Defense attorneys used their opening statements to knock the government's star witness — the former chair of an Argentinian sports marketing company who pleaded guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Two former Fox executives are facing criminal charges linked to the corruption scandal that swept FIFA and took down international officials, including the international soccer governing body’s president, among more than two dozen public guilty pleas

Trial kicked off Tuesday against Hernan Lopez, former CEO of Fox International Channels and Carlos Martinez, president of Latin America for the Twenty-First Century Fox subsidiary. 

The former executives are charged with paying millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to officials of the South American Football Confederation, known as Conmebol, in exchange for lucrative rights to air South American club soccer’s biggest competition, the Copa Libertadores. 

Uruguay-based sports media and marketing company Full Play faces the same wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering charges plus additional counts related to other tournaments. 

“This case is about the corruption of international soccer. It is about bribe after bribe, totaling millions of dollars, over the course of years in the most popular sport in the world,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Victor Zapana Jr. said in his opening statement. “The defendants wanted control over soccer TV broadcasting, and they knew how to get it.” 

To clean up the dirty dealings, Lopez brought in Martinez to stage a cleanup and distance himself from the bribery by instructing Martinez to move money off the books, Zapana said. 

“As defendant Lopez felt the walls closing in, he went to Fox and pretended he had just learned about the bribes,” Zapana said. 

Close ties with Conmebol meanwhile earned Lopez and Martinez extra credit at work, the government claims.

“From Fox’s perspective, they were shooting stars,” Zapana said. “They brought in the goods.” 

Had Conmebol gone through a legitimate open bid process and signed a more competitive contract, money the organization saved could have been used for expenses like soccer fields, women’s teams, and youth leagues around the world, Zapana said. 

The government’s star witness, expected to testify as early as Wednesday, is Alejandro Burzaco, former general manager and chairman of the board of Torneos y Competencias S.A., an Argentinian sports marketing company. Burzaco, who testified at the previous FIFA trial in Brooklyn federal court, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.  

Defense attorneys urged jurors not to buy Burzaco’s account. 

Since Burzaco turned himself in to officials in Italy in 2015, he has met with the government dozens of times — and his story keeps changing, said Lopez’s attorney John Gleeson, a partner at Debovoise and Plimpton LLP. 

“He’s a very smooth character,” Gleeson said. “He’s a professional criminal and a con man.” 

Besides trying to save his own skin, Burzaco wants to get back at his client for asking too many questions about dealings that Burzaco wanted to keep quiet, Gleeson said. It wouldn’t have made sense for Lopez to report a scheme that he himself was involved in. 

“He would be blowing the whistle on himself which is, of course, crazy,” said Gleeson, who served for 22 years as a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York.

An attorney for Full Play meanwhile said that payments to officials were not bribes — but she didn’t deny they happened. Rather, the scheme was a longstanding tradition in the soccer business world, said attorney Mayling C. Blanco.

“The evidence will show that these payments were part of a generations-long business custom,” said Blanco, of the firm Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP. “They were expected, they were asked for, and even demanded by soccer executives.” 

As such, Blanco said, this type of deal was common knowledge.

“The entire controlling mind of Conmebol — the NFL of South America — they knew about these payments,” Blanco said.  

Martinez’s attorney, in the final opening statement of the day, took issue with Blanco’s characterization and others that generalize businesses in Latin America as normalizing corruption. He cited a statement allegedly made during an interview with investigators that his client must have participated in bribes because he grew up in Mexico. 

“It’s that nonsense you heard — ‘everyone’s dirty in South America’ — it’s that bigotry nonsense that sets up back,” said Steven McCool of the Washington DC-based firm McCool Law PLLC. 

McCool foreshadowed Burzaco’s upcoming testimony: “He may even shed a few tears. He’s bluffing. Be careful.” The attorney said Burzaco has played in the World Series of Poker, and has boasted that the game “has shown me how to read my enemies.” 

“Here, the evidence will show that the government got it wrong,” McCool said. “They built their case on the back of a bad guy.” 

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