Witness says he paid $160M in bribes to soccer officials

Juan Angel Napout, center, arrives at federal court in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Napout, Manuel Burga, and Juan Angel Napout have pleaded not guilty to charges they took part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes that secured tournament broadcasting and hosting rights in the sprawling FIFA scandal. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

NEW YORK (AP) — A former marketing executive from Argentina testified Thursday at a U.S. trial that he and his company arranged to pay 30 soccer officials about $160 million in bribes over the course of several years until his arrest in 2015.

Alejandro Burzaco offered the estimate in the case against three former South American soccer officials accused in the sprawling bribery scandal engulfing FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

The 53-year-old witness said on cross-examination he knew when he joined the firm in 2004 that bribes were a cost of doing business when competing for lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights. But, he added, “I didn’t think it would transform into such a dirty business.”

Juan Angel Napout, of Paraguay, Manuel Burga, of Peru, and Jose Maria Marin, of Brazil, have pleaded not guilty to charges they enriched themselves in an international conspiracy involving tens of millions of bribes and spanning more than two decades. More than 40 defendants have been charged in the corruption case, with many, including Burzaco, pleading guilty in hopes of getting reduced sentences.

On Thursday, a lawyer for Napout, the ex-president of Paraguay’s soccer federation, pressed Burzaco on whether he directly paid any bribes to his client to buy his influence in awarding the rights.

Burzaco responded that he “personally never gave Napout cash in his hands.” Instead, millions of dollars in bribes from his company were channeled through various off-the-books business entities before reaching Napout, he testified.

The defendant “receives the money,” he said. “He’s happy.”

During three days on the witness stand, Burzaco testified that his firm gave bribes totaling $4.5 million to Napout, $3.6 million to Burgo and $2.7 million to Marin. He also claimed he has been the subject of death threats in Argentina because of his cooperation against the cadre of wealthy and powerful soccer officials.

Outside the view of the jury, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen has continued to look at claims by prosecutors that Burga sought to intimidate Burzaco by staring at him in the courtroom and making a slashing gesture across his throat. The defense said Burga was merely scratching a rash his neck.

“This is a gentle, meek, timid man,” Burga’s attorney, Bruce Udolf, said during a conference without the jury in the courtroom. “I never saw any indication that he was making any gesture.”

For now, the judge has stopped short of locking up Burga as prosecutors wanted, instead tightening bail conditions by placing him under house arrest at a residence in Brooklyn. Burga already had been on GPS monitoring but had some privileges to leave the home.

Bruzaco is expected to conclude his testimony on Friday.

By TOM HAYS, Associated Press