Peruvian Acquitted in Soccer Bribery Trial in U.S.

(Bloomberg) -- A former Peruvian soccer official was acquitted of U.S. charges that he accepted bribes from sports-marketing companies for media rights to professional tournaments.

The acquittal amounts to a mixed verdict for the U.S. government, which won convictions against the former heads of Brazil’s soccer federation and South American soccer on Friday.

A jury in Brooklyn, New York, on Tuesday came back with a not guilty verdict on a single count of racketeering conspiracy for Manuel Burga, 60. The jurors were undecided about Burga last week, when they delivered the guilty verdicts against the other officials.

Burga choked back sobs, covering his mouth, as the verdict was read.

“My heart is bumping,” Burga in a hallway afterward. “I’m scared how it’s bumping.”

Burga was charged alongside Juan Angel Napout, 59, a Paraguayan who was president of CONMEBOL, South American soccer’s governing body, and Jose Maria Marin, 85, the former head of Brazil’s soccer federation, as part of a sprawling U.S. probe alleging that international soccer officials and sports marketing executives conspired for decades in bribery schemes.

The U.S. verdict came in the first case to go to trial in a corruption crackdown that began with a predawn raid at a luxury hotel in Zurich in 2015. Burga’s acquittal and Napout and Marin’s convictions follow guilty pleas from 24 people tied to FIFA, international soccer’s governing association. Fifteen others who’ve been charged are fighting extradition to the U.S.

"There’s no question in my mind that it was the right call by the jury," Bruce Udolf, Burga’s lawyer, said in an interview after the verdict. "I’m very happy for him because he’s a good man and he’s been through hell for the last two years."

Napout and Marin were found guilty of wire fraud and racketeering conspiracies and immediately jailed by U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen in the high-security Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center to await sentencing. Marin, who had been living in a $3.5 million apartment in New York’s Trump Tower, was also convicted of a money-laundering conspiracy. The pair were acquitted of some counts. Each faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Udolf said prosecutors’ evidence against Burga was limited. Although a government witness said Burga got more than $3 million in bribes, evidence kept in a ledger by sports-marketing officials showed that Burga hadn’t received the cash.

Prosecutors called almost 30 witnesses over six weeks, including former sports-marketing executives who gave jurors an inside look into FIFA’s seamier side. They said that from 2010 until 2016 Napout accepted at least $10.5 million in payoffs, Burga got $4.4 million and Marin collected $6.6 million. Jurors deliberated a little more than a week.

Alejandro Burzaco, the government’s star witness and chief of sports-marketing company Torneos y Competencias SA, told jurors he paid at least 30 people more than $160 million to secure broadcasting rights to South American tournaments and World Cup matches in 2026 and 2030. A former Citigroup Inc. banker, Burzaco testified that the defendants were among at least six soccer officials who accepted payoffs.

Burga, who was jailed for a year in Peru before being extradited to the U.S., said he plans to return immediately to his home country and rejoin his wife and two children.

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

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