BROOKLYN (CN) – A federal jury acquitted a Peruvian former soccer official Tuesday morning after deliberating on his case separately, a holiday weekend after it convicted his two co-defendants in the FIFA bribery scandal.
Manuel Burga, 60, faced just one count of racketeering conspiracy in a sweeping bribery scheme that resulted in the convictions on Friday of Jose Maria Marin, 85, of Brazil, and Juan Angel Napout, 59, of Paraguay.
But the jury, which found Napout and Marin guilty on the RICO count as well as counts of wire fraud and money laundering, could not reach a decision on Burga’s charge last week. After taking Monday off for Christmas, they returned Tuesday morning to continue deliberating.
The jury had sent a note to U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen on Friday afternoon with a question about the RICO charge. Just minutes after Chen instructed them on the charge Tuesday morning, jurors sent another note saying they had reached a verdict.
In a break from his normally somber courtroom demeanor, Burga was visibly emotional when the not-guilty verdict was read, wiping tears from his eyes.
“God bless America, that’s all I can say,” he told reporters outside the courtroom. “But really I want to go back to my family and my friends.”
According to his lawyer, Bruce Udolf, Burga’s wife is the manager of a small hotel in Lima, and he has two children – a son in college and a daughter in high school. His family and friends had put up property for Burga’s $2 million bail, according to Udolf.
Burga told reporters it was “hard, really hard” to be on trial in a foreign country without his family nearby. He has been in the U.S. for one year and 22 days, he said. The FIFA bribery investigation had landed him in Peruvian prison for a year before he was extradited to the U.S.
Burga, a former member of FIFA’s development committee who controlled Peruvian soccer from 2002 to 2014, said he had been praying the rosary twice a day. Udolf told reporters he took his client to church Christmas morning, the day before the verdict.
Anticipating a guilty verdict when he learned how quickly the jury had decided, Udolf immediately asked for a mistrial Tuesday morning. Chen denied the motion, and moments later the Fort Lauderdale-based attorney learned his client had been cleared by the jury.
“This was the right thing to do,” Udolf told reporters after the verdict. “The evidence obviously was weakest against Mr. Burga. There was no evidence he’d gotten any [bribe] money…I’m really grateful to the jury for giving him the benefit of that doubt.”
Udolf is a former federal prosecutor who spent five years as chief of the public integrity unit for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Florida’s Southern District.
“He has insisted from day one that he never agreed to anything along these lines, and he will go to his grave saying that…I’m very happy for him, because he’s a good man and he’s been through hell the last two years,” Udolf said of Burga.
The FBI has been holding Burga’s passport, but his lawyer said he’s going to “try to get him on a plane ASAP.”
Early in the trial, Burga caused a stir when prosecutors accused him of making a slashing gesture across his throat while government witness Alejandro Burzaco was on the stand.
“That never happened,” Udolf said Tuesday about the incident. “That’s what happens when there’s a high level of anxiety in a case.”
Udolf said Burga’s countrymen care more about having a winning soccer team than they do about the FIFA corruption scandal.
“They were more angry that Peru was losing all the time than they were about anything else,” he said.
Outside the courtroom, Burga indicated he probably will not re-enter the soccer world in any significant way. If he did, he exclaimed, laughing, “My family will throw me away.”
“Soccer is a sport like all other sports,” Burga added. “In South America they say it’s a religion, but soccer is a sport.” He added that he also likes basketball and volleyball.
Burga was an administrative lawyer in Peru, he said, and he spoke of opening a studio in Lima to give legal advice to people who, like him, face extradition but might not have the money to hire a lawyer.
“I think God put me in this way to do something, and that for sure is not in sports,” Burga said.
Marin, Burga and Napout had been arrested in 2015. Prosecutors accused the three men of agreeing to take millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen seeking to lock up lucrative media rights or influence hosting rights for the World Cup and other major tournaments controlled by FIFA.
The three were among more than 40 people and entities in the world of global soccer charged in the U.S. in connection with an investigation that uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
Many of the other defendants have already pleaded guilty.