FIFA Bribery Witness Returns to Stand After Alleged Threats

(Bloomberg) -- Just as video replay helps referees in professional sports, U.S. prosecutors say camera footage from inside a courtroom could verify whether a former FIFA soccer official charged with corruption used a throat-slitting gesture to intimidate a government witness.

A death threat allegedly issued in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, was just one of several dramatic turns in a trial that has lifted the veil on allegations that the world’s most popular sport is mired in graft at the highest levels.

Prosecutors say Manuel Burga -- one of the three defendants charged with taking bribes and kickbacks from sports-media and marketing firms tied to matches -- twice stared down and made the same “slicing” gesture toward Alejandro Burzaco, a former marketing executive who’s cooperating with the U.S.

Burzaco, who has already pleaded guilty, broke down early Wednesday while a prosecutor complained to the judge, with the jury absent, that the witness was being menaced by Burga, a former president of Peru’s soccer federation. Later in the day, Burzaco again lost his composure as he recounted for jurors that after he initially agreed to help prosecutors investigating corruption, he learned from his brother who works in law enforcement in Argentina that he could be killed in retaliation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Mace asked U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen to jail Burga, saying there’s now a greater risk he’ll flee after Burzaco described paying him $3.6 million in bribes.

But Chen said she wanted to first review a videotape of Wednesday morning’s court proceedings. The judge said she’d reviewed a video recording from Tuesday’s trial and said it "may” have shown a threatening gesture, but said it was “small and blurry” and “a terrible image” on which to base a ruling. She said she’d revisit the issue after testimony concludes Thursday.

Burga’s lawyer insisted the “slicing” motion Mace attributed to the defendant was misinterpreted, saying his client was scratching his neck because of a skin rash.

"To the extent your client is saying he has a skin condition, all I can say is it’s not apparent," Chen said.

"This is not made up," said attorney Bruce Udolf, who offered to get a sworn statement from a colleague who he said gave Burga a tube of hydrocortisone cream on Wednesday to treat the rash.

Udolf also suggested Burzaco may have been upset because Jorge Delhon, a former Argentine lawyer, took his own life Tuesday in a Buenos Aires suburb hours after Burzaco accused him of accepting at least $1 million in bribes.

“What happened was, someone committed suicide,” Udolf said.

When court resumed Thursday, John Pappalardo, a lawyer for defendant Juan Angel Napout, a Paraguayan who once headed South America’s soccer federation, began cross-examining Burzaco.

Burzaco has described paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes tied to getting his company exclusive broadcasting rights to not only South American tournaments but also World Cup matches in 2026 and 2030. He said he paid bribes to the three men on trial, including $4.5 million to Napout and $2.7 million to Jose Maria Marin, the former head of Brazil’s federation. Burzaco said he promised all three defendants millions of dollars more.

Burzaco has also described bribing his former mentor, Julio Grondona, the former head of Argentine soccer who died in 2014. Grondona’s son, Humberto, took to a sports radio program on Wednesday to condemn him, saying, "Burzaco lied," and "I think that in SA he can’t walk. He will stay in New York. But he shouldn’t be able to return here. Somebody won’t like that he comes back," according to a report in the newspaper Clarin.

John Marzulli, a spokesman for Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde in Brooklyn,
declined to comment on Humberto Grondona’s criticism of Burzaco.

The case is U.S. v Napout, 15-cr-252, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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