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No prison time for key FIFA bribery witness

Prosecutors said Alejandro Burzaco's 15 days on the witness stand were only a fraction of the aid he's provided the government in going after extensive bribery and corruption in the international soccer industry.

BROOKLYN (CN) — A federal judge dabbed tears from her eyes as she sentenced the government’s central witness in its sweeping FIFA bribery investigation to time served Friday, saying his cooperation and rehabilitation reaffirmed her belief in the U.S. justice system. 

Alejandro Burzaco testified for a total of 15 days between two trials, one in 2017 and the second earlier this year, which ended with a split verdict

The 58-year-old former principal for Torneos y Competencias SA, an Argentinian sports media and marketing business, testified for 11 days at the 2023 trial against two former Fox executives. He described plotting with both defendants to bribe officials of the South American Football Confederation — one of FIFA’s six continental confederations, known as Conmebol — in exchange for lucrative rights to air South American club soccer’s biggest competition, the Copa Libertadores.

Prosecutors said the public only saw a slice of Burzaco's eight years cooperating with federal agents, and that he provided more information than any other single source. 

The courtroom was packed on Friday with suited former prosecutors supporting Burzaco. His four children and other family members sat in the front row, and embraced in tears following the sentence. 

Both the government and U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen were effusive in their descriptions of Burzaco serving as the linchpin in the case that led to multiple convictions and some two dozen public guilty pleas. The scandal took down FIFA’s former president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who for 17 years oversaw the international soccer governing body. 

“I find that his cooperation has been nothing short of breathtaking,” Chen said. “I think you’ve set an example not only for your family, but for the world, on doing the right thing.” 

It would have been easy for Burzaco to sneak back into his home country of Argentina and avoid extradition, as other defendants have done, Chen noted. Instead he surrendered to authorities in Italy in 2015 and then flew to New York City to begin meeting with FBI agents. 

Chen praised Burzaco's volunteer work at a soup kitchen and commitment to reporting crimes he witnessed, including an attempted bicycle theft that Burzaco stopped, and his reporting a drug deal in Washington Square Park. 

Attorneys for Burzaco said he may never be able to return safely to Argentina. His testimony garnered threats to himself and his family. After his initial appearance in Brooklyn, the witness never entered the courthouse through the front door.

“To sum it up, his decision to cooperate has been life-altering,” Chen said, “but he has … made the most of it.” 

Burzaco apologized to soccer clubs, players, fans, the court and prosecutors as he spoke to the court. 

“There are no excuses for what I did,” he said. “I could have decided to walk away, I could have decided to blow the whistle myself. … I didn’t, and I was ashamed. I am still ashamed.” 

Chen did not impose supervised release nor a fine. Burzaco had to forfeit $21.7 million as part of his plea. The institutional victims, including FIFA itself, are not seeking restitution; Burzaco’s money was part of the $201 million the United States remitted to those parties.

“Your honor, I promise that I learned this hard lesson, and that I will comply with the law for the rest of my life,” Burzaco said. “I trust the U.S. justice system. Your honor, I will accept your sentence with grace and dignity. I am very sorry.” 

So that others like Burzaco might come forward, Chen said, it was “important, almost necessary” not to give him any prison time. His statements in court made Chen step back and take pride in the U.S. justice system, she said, calling it the “finest in the world.” 

“As you were speaking, Mr. Burzaco, I felt privileged and proud to participate in that,” Chen said.  

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Mace was equally fulsome in her description of Burzaco’s game-changing cooperation. Others in the industry knew just as much as Burzaco, she said, but did not come forward. 

“There is no doubt that after Mr. Burzaco’s 2017 testimony, the soccer industry was changed forever,” Mace said. “Mr. Burzaco has earned the deep and genuine respect of the U.S. government.”

Meanwhile Burzaco’s attorneys praised the government’s efforts to take down corrupt officials related to the FIFA bribery scheme. Attorney James Walden said the investigation makes those considering engaging in such activity “look over their shoulder to see if Uncle Sam is around the corner.” 

Categories:Criminal, Entertainment, International, Sports, Trials

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