BROOKLYN (CN) – On the first day of closing arguments Wednesday in a high-profile FIFA bribery trial, defense attorneys accused prosecutors of overreach in their indictments of three South American former soccer officials charged with money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering.
The trial of former Brazilian soccer head Jose Maria Marin, former Paraguayan soccer boss Juan Angel Napout and former Peruvian soccer leader Manuel Burga is now in its fifth week.
Prosecutors say the men were part of a decades-long scheme at FIFA where media and marketing rights to soccer events were traded for more than $200 million in bribes. All three defendants deny the allegations and pleaded not guilty.
The trial in Brooklyn federal court has been punctuated by Burga’s alleged skin condition, alleged death threats by Burga toward a witness, testimony by Kevin Jonas of the boy band Jonas Brothers, and a juror who appeared to sleep in the jury box every day until he was dismissed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Mace opened Wednesday’s proceedings by outlining the government’s argument that all three defendants are guilty of a RICO conspiracy. Her summation was reminiscent of a lecture by a scientist who has spent years studying a complex virus and then must summarize thousands of strands of specific knowledge for the general public -- in this case, the jury.
“Each defendant agreed to the bribes and deprived the soccer organizations of the right to his honest services,” Mace said, reprising an opening argument made by her colleague, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Edelman.
The most striking moment in Mace’s three-hour argument came at the end when she projected a 2012 group photograph of smiling South American soccer officials, with the amounts they had allegedly taken in bribe money between 2010 and 2016 superimposed over their faces.
“Juan Angel Napout, $10.5 million,” she read out loud. “Manuel Burga, $4.4 million...Jose Maria Marin, $6.55 million.”
She said the alleged bribes came from production of three separate soccer tournaments as well as World Cup qualifying matches.
“They, too, thought the payoffs would last forever,” Mace said. “[But] these defendants got caught, and now it’s time for them to be held accountable.”
One of Napout’s lawyers, John Pappalardo, who delivered his own closing arguments after Mace, admitted, “There is no doubt the government investigation exposed widespread corruption” in international soccer.
He gave prosecutors credit for their “considerable effort” but argued they had gotten carried away, saying their evidence had “morphed into a theory. All they have are theories.”
“They were riding a wave of overwhelming evidence against others,” Pappalardo told the jury, “and they trusted [Alejandro] Burzaco,” a star government witness in the case, one of several who had cooperated with the government in exchange for reduced sentences or non-prosecution agreements.
The defense attorney called Burzaco a “liar,” a “cheat,” a “manipulator,” and a “phoenix that can rise from anything,” suggesting he had also manipulated prosecutors.
“They trusted him,” Pappalardo told the jury, “but can you?”
Even with the alleged lack of credibility of the government’s witnesses, he continued, the government had not drawn any direct links between bribes and his client.
“No witness has taken that witness stand in this trial and said they personally paid Juan, or saw him being paid, cash or anything else,” Pappalardo told jurors.
A slide projected on the courtroom wall read, “The Government’s Investigation = No Direct Evidence.”
At the end of the day’s lunch break, Marin’s wife approached Napout’s wife, who was standing with her children, and spoke to her quietly. The women smiled and grasped each other’s forearms.
Marin’s attorney will give his closing argument Thursday morning, likely followed by a government rebuttal.
Burga’s attorney Bruce Udolf spoke last on Wednesday, echoing many of Pappalardo’s points that the government had gotten overzealous with its indictments and that there was no direct evidence linking Burga to bribe payments.
“There is no evidence of bribes in this case,” he said. “I would submit to you that never has more been made of less evidence. Let him go home to Peru, to his family.”
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