By Jan Wolfe
(Reuters) – Former Peru soccer federation president, Manuel Burga, was found not guilty on Tuesday of racketeering conspiracy by a U.S. jury in New York.
Burga was charged along with Juan Angel Napout, the former president of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL and Paraguay’s soccer federation, and Jose Maria Marin, former president of Brazil’ soccer federation, with taking bribes in exchange for the award of valuable marketing and media rights to international soccer matches.
The three men were the first to stand trial on charges brought by U.S. prosecutors in 2015 as part of investigations of world soccer’s governing body FIFA.
Napout and Marin were both convicted on several counts on Friday, following a five-week trial in federal court in Brooklyn. The jury said at the time it was deadlocked on the single count against Burga.
Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom after the verdict was read, Burga, 60, said the criminal proceeding had been an ordeal for his family and that he was eager to spend time with them in Peru.
Burga’s lawyer, Bruce Udolf, said the verdict was the “right thing to do” but that he had expected Burga to be found guilty because a question posed by the jury suggested it was siding with the prosecutors.
U.S. prosecutors have charged 42 people and entities in the case, at least 24 of whom have pleaded guilty. Several of those testified for prosecutors in this trial, telling of corruption that went far beyond the defendants in the courtroom.
Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, told jurors in November that he paid bribes to all three defendants to secure rights to matches including the Copa America and Copa Libertadores. Burzaco had pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Burzaco also said that Fox Sports, Mexico’s Grupo Televisa and Brazil’s Globo paid bribes for media rights to games. Fox and Globo denied being involved in bribery, while Televisa declined to comment after Burzaco’s testimony.
Burzaco also said that Qatar bribed officials of soccer’s world governing body FIFA to host the 2022 World Cup. Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, which is organizing the event, has denied the allegations.
Santiago Pena, a former financial manager at Argentine sports marketing firm Full Play, walked the jury through a spreadsheet detailing what he said were payments to eight CONMEBOL officials, including Napout and Burga.
The trial was marred by tragedy in its first week, when Argentine police said that Jorge Delhon, a former lawyer for the country’s Futbol Para Todos (Soccer for All), program had committed suicide after Burzaco named him in his testimony.
The next day, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen put Burga under house arrest after prosecutors said he threatened Burzaco by making a slicing motion across his throat.
Udolf, Burga’s lawyer, denied that his client threatened Burzaco.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)