(Bloomberg) -- The South American soccer barons gathered at Miami Beach’s St. Regis Bal Harbour hotel in late April 2014 to gloat: they’d just made $100 million selling the rights to the Copa America soccer tournament.
“Business is going very well!” Argentinian sports-marketing executive Mariano Jinkis elatedly told his partners, citing sales to Mexico’s Univision and Fox Sports. “We will have $100 million of profit,” he crowed, “from the U.S. only!”
What Jinkis didn’t know was the FBI was also listening -- through surreptitious recordings made by an associate. That’s how the U.S. mounted a sprawling corruption probe of FIFA, the organizing body for the world’s most popular sport, eventually ensnaring more than 40 people, including soccer officials and sports-marketing businessmen.
Just what these big payoffs meant for soccer dons wasn’t fully known until federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, began unveiling their evidence at the racketeering trial of three former South American soccer officials. For the past five weeks, a U.S. jury that includes teachers and retirees has heard all about the luxe life these men lived that included suppers featuring tango dancing, flights on private jets to exclusive resorts like Mauritius, stays at five-star hotels and a clandestine night meeting at a lavish farm at an Uruguayan resort.
One defendant, Juan Angel Napout, a Paraguayan who was former president of South American soccer’s ruling federation, was big on personal grooming with his manicures, pedicures and massages discretely arranged by his chauffeur, according to testimony.
“If this is true, the defendants are purveyors of good taste and high-end luxury goods, but there’s a solid evidentiary reason for this evidence as well,” said Anthony Sabino, who teaches law at the business school of St. John’s University in New York. “It demonstrates the paper trail these defendants left: here’s people accepting this money, here’s evidence showing that they got this money and here’s how they spent it. It’s part and parcel of proving the corruption.”
Napout’s driver performed another duty -- he drove 30 hours from Asuncion, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires and back to pick up and deliver cash bribes to his boss and facilitate payments to another Argentinian official, according to former sports-marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the U.S. government.
Prosecutors say Napout collected millions of dollars in bribes as well as gifts -- such as $10,175.88 worth of tickets to a Paul McCartney concert in Buenos Aires.
“We grew up with him, we owe it to the Beatles and Paul is a genius!” Napout’s friend said in an email after the sold-out November 2010 concert. “For me this is my dream come true.”
“I also had the feeling it was not real, that’s how good it was!” Napout gushed.
One of his co-defendants, Jose Maria Marin, the 85-year-old former president of the Brazilian football federation, is out on bail during the trial and is living under house arrest at his $3.5 million apartment in Manhattan’s Trump Tower. The case could go to the jury by Thursday.
Marin called the payout to him and other soccer officials a well-deserved reward in an expletive-laden conversation with marketing executives recorded by the FBI in April 2014 in Miami Beach.
“Pay close attention to what we have already done and what we are still doing,” he said, according to a transcript. “It’s about time to have it coming our way,” Marin declared, upon learning about the windfall sports-marketing officials made with the Centennial edition of the Copa America that was hosted by the U.S. in 2016. “Mind you, we wore ourselves out on the contracts that are in progress.”
Jurors have been shown thousands of pages of records that include two secret ledgers kept by sports-marketing officials documenting what prosecutors say were bribes paid out to soccer officials. An Internal Revenue Service agent who worked on the investigation since 2011 testified that payments were funneled to offshore entities and ended up in bank accounts he’s linked to the defendants.
The records show, for example, that Marin and his wife opened an account at Morgan Stanley under an entity called Firelli International Ltd., where $4.9 million was deposited from an Andorran bank between January and March 2014. The U.S. says the money originated from a Swiss account controlled by Burzaco, part of what the businessman testified were the millions of dollars in bribes he paid to officials, including Marin, for the broadcasting rights to the Centennial tournament and another in Brazil.
Prosecutors say the bribes funded a luxury shopping spree over a two-month period on two continents. There was a $20,977.15 charge in March 2014 from Hermes in Paris, and a month later, a $50,000 bill at Bulgari in Las Vegas. There were also purchases totaling more than $10,000 at Chanel in New York and thousands of dollars at luxury-goods stores like Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Brioni and Christian Dior.
Marin’s lawyers have suggested, during questioning of witnesses, that the money went not to him but to another Brazilian soccer official.
The good life came to a crashing halt on May 27, 2015, when Swiss authorities rounded up soccer bosses and businessmen at the five-star Baur au Lac hotel where FIFA officials gathered for their annual meeting. Burzaco said that, despite the chaos of the arrests, soccer officials were still discussing if there were enough of them to hold elections for the federation’s president.
The following year, FIFA abandoned its years-long tradition of holding executive meetings at Baur au Lac, where suites cost $4,000 a night, and moved to another five-star hotel that was expected to save the organization tens of thousands of dollars.
The case is U.S. v Napout, 15-cr-252, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).
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