BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – A federal jury convicted two former soccer officials from South America on Friday of corrupting FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
Jose Maria Marin, 85, of Brazil, and Juan Angel Napout, 59, of Paraguay, had each been president once of his country’s soccer association. Their convictions mark a new victory for U.S. prosecutors who brought a sweeping indictment two years ago against more than 40 people on similar charges.
After six days of deliberations, however, the jury’s work is still incomplete. They must return Tuesday morning to continue deliberations on a third co-defendant, 60-year-old Manuel Burga of Peru, who is charged with violating federal anti-racketeering law.
Marin and Napout were both convicted Friday of this charge as well as several counts of wire-fraud conspiracy. On two additional counts of money laundering, Napout was acquitted and Marin convicted. Marin faced an additional count of money-laundering conspiracy of which he was acquitted.
Together with Burga, the defendants are the only indicted FIFA officials who fought the charges against them after they were extradited to Brooklyn.
Their five-week trial kicked off about a month after the first sentencing in the sweeping U.S. indictment: Hector Trujillo, the former general secretary of Guatemalan soccer federation Fenafutg, was sentenced to eight months after pleading guilty to wire fraud.
When Burga, Marin and Napout’s trial opened in mid-November, dramatic allegations of witness intimidation quickly came to the fore, and the theatrics escalated from there. Multiple millionaires were called to the witness stand, and the evidence record ballooned with photographs of private planes, group dinners and a luxury apartment in the Uruguay beach resort city of Punta del Este.
The 12-person jury began deliberating on Dec. 15. With Christmas around the corner, news of the verdict Friday came about an hour before U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen was set to discharge the jury early for a three-day weekend.
All three defendants had been free on bond pending the trial, but Chen remanded Napout and Marin into federal custody after the verdict this afternoon. “When that [trial] is over, it’s over, and the incentives change,” she said.
Napout, ranked as the most powerful of the three on trial, seemed to have lost some of his confidence. After the verdict was read, he exchanged a long look across the courtroom with his wife, who has been observing the trial with couple’s four adult children.
Prosecutors balked at an offer for Napout’s wife to surrender her passport if Judge Chen would keep Napout free ahead of sentencing.
“The risk of flight is at its zenith,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Nitze.
Defense attorney Silvia Pinera-Vasquez likewise failed to keep Napout’s bail in place for the Christmas weekend.
Chen said she must find “clear and convincing evidence” that defendants do not pose a risk of flight.
“I don’t find that the defendants have met that standard,” she said, emphasizing the “very significant potential sentences” that the defendants face, as well as their conduct and what she knows about their resources.
Recycling a point from his closing arguments, Marin’s attorney Charles Stillman emphasized that the Brazilian defendant is turning 86 in a few months.
“I come back to age, I come back to health,” said Stillman, an attorney with the firm Ballard Spahr.
Marin is taking medications for depression and hypertension. “At his age, he’s not going to live life on the run,” Stillman added.
Stillman noted that Marin has never had a problem complying with the terms of house arrest. “He will not even walk me to the elevator in his apartment,” the attorney said.
Unmoved by these arguments, Judge Chen remarked that Napout and Marin have “vast amounts of wealth at their disposal.”
“I don’t see avoiding an incarceratory sentence as an option,” she said.
“I am going to remand both defendants at this time,” Chen added.
Before surrendering to federal marshals, Napout appeared to immediately take off his watch and hand it to his wife, as well as a chain around his neck and his belt.
Each of the counts Napout and Marin have been convicted of violating carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and federal guidelines recommend at least 10 years.
“We’re obviously frustrated with the verdict,” said Pinera-Vasquez, an attorney for Napout, as she left court Friday. Surrounded by photographers and videographers, Napout’s wife and three daughters all had their arms linked and heads down as they walked. The couple has a son as well.
Stillman, who represents Marin, voiced disappointment in his client’s imprisonment. “It’s Christmas, you know,” Stillman said.
Before his arrest, Napout had been president of Paraguayan Soccer Association and Conmebol, the South American Soccer Association. He was accused of taking $10.5 million in bribes, the most of any defendant in this trial. Some of these alleged bribes included $10,000 tickets to a Paul McCartney concert and a luxury apartment in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
In support of these allegations, prosecutors produced witness testimony from Alejandro Burzaco, a former executive at sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias.
Burzaco admitted to bribing to soccer officials in exchange for commercial rights, but his cooperation with the government is expected to result in a lighter sentence.
Because he likened the complex routes of bribery payments to “a train,” with “a couple stations,” however, Burzaco claimed that he “personally never gave Mr. Napout cash in his hands.”
Attorneys for multiple defendants pounced on testimony like this, emphasizing that prosecutors could not show that the defendants took the bribes. Prosecutors meanwhile reminded the jury that the “conspiracy” charge means that jurors had to find evidence only they had agreed to take bribes.
Another government witness, Santiago Pena, worked for Argentina-based sports-marketing company Full Play. Pena testified that Napout’s code name on secret Full Play bribe ledgers was “Honda.”
In her opening argument, defense attorney Pinera-Vazquez told the jury Napout speaks five languages and has four grandchildren.
As has been typical of his courtroom demeanor, Marin appeared to scowl lightly as the jury delivered Friday’s verdict.
Before his three-year stint as president of the Brazilian football confederation, Marin was a professional soccer player himself, spending two years as a striker for Sao Paolo. He also served as a city counsellor, state deputy and later governor of Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Defense attorney Stillman described Marin as someone who was “on the field but not in the game” when it came to the widespread FIFA bribes.
Evidence presented against Marin in the trial also stained his successor, Marco Polo del Nero, the new president of Brazilian soccer, whom FIFA suspended for 90 days on Dec. 15.
Del Nero, who is planning to appeal the suspension, fled Zurich in 2015 when Marin and other soccer officials were arrested as they gathered for a FIFA meeting. Though he also faces conspiracy, wire-fraud and money-laundering charges, del Nero has not traveled from Brazil for several years to avoid arrest and extradition.
Unlike his co-defendants, Burga faced just one count of RICO conspiracy. Early in the trial, Burga caused a stir when prosecutors accused him of making a slashing gesture across his through while Burzaco was on the stand.
Burga’s attorney, Bruce Udolf, argued Burga was merely scratching his neck due to a skin condition. Rather than imprisoning Burga for the trial, as the government initially suggested, Judge Chen toughened the Peruvian’s bail restrictions.
Burga was a member of FIFA’s development committee who controlled Peruvian soccer from 2002 to 2014.
In his closing argument Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nitze said Burga had colleagues hold the bribe money for him so he could collect it later because he was under a separate investigation for money laundering in Lima.
Burga was represented by Bruce Udolf.