Two former executives under the 21st Century Fox banner bribed football officials to win lucrative broadcast rights to tournaments, a prosecutor told a jury in their criminal trial, part of a long-running probe of corruption in the sport.
Hernán López and Carlos Martínez were also accused of engaging in wire-fraud and money-laundering conspiracies for trying to promote Fox’s interests in securing the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments.
“This system of bribery lasted for years, through generations of leaders,” Assistant US Attorney Victor Zapana Jr. told the jurors in an opening statement Tuesday. The bribery helped promote Fox as a significant broadcaster of international football tournaments, he said.
Officials of the sport “personally took money in exchange for secret, no-bid, below-market contracts for these valuable TV rights,” Zapana said. “This allowed disloyal, corrupt soccer executives to live a life of luxury, to buy Chanel, to buy Hermes.”
The trial, in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, stems from an international crackdown on cheating at FIFA, international football’s governing body, that burst on the scene with a predawn raid at a luxury Zurich hotel in May 2015. The ‘FIFA-gate’ investigation brought down some of the biggest names in the sport, including Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, who was ousted as FIFA’s president after 17 years in the role.
In an April 2020 indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that López and Martínez oversaw bribes and kickbacks to win broadcasting rights for Fox in South America.
López was the chief executive officer of Fox International Channels, and Martínez was a “high-ranking executive” of Fox Latin America Channel, an affiliate of the unit, according to the indictment.
Lawyers for López and Martínez have called the prosecution “a thin case” and a “stale fiction.”
Fox wasn’t charged in the case.
Fox’s sports business came up at the 2017 trial of three former FIFA executives. Alejandro Burzaco, the former chief executive officer of sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias SA and a government witness, testified that the company sought to use the TV rights “to expand its Fox signal in all of the Americas, from Argentina to the USA.”
In his own opening statement, John Gleeson, López’s lawyer, told the jurors that his client was “an innocent man” and that Burzaco had blamed López for his own crimes.
“It’s about revenge, a chance to get back at his enemies, who Burzaco now blames for his demise,” Gleeson said.
Martinez’s lawyer, Steven McCool, also put the blame on Burzaco.
Burzaco was a “sophisticated man capable of hiding his scheme from other sophisticated men,” McCool said, insisting Burzaco had hidden the bribe-paying from his client and López.
“The evidence will show the government got it wrong,” he told the jury. “They built their case on the back of a bad guy.”
The US Internal Revenue Service, one of the federal authorities behind the long-running probe, alleged the scheme employed shell companies, sham consulting contracts and other methods to disguise the bribes and kickbacks.
Prosecutors said López and Martínez teamed up with the sports marketing firm Full Play Group SA to pay millions of dollars a year in bribes to officials of CONMEBOL, the governing body for South American football. Full Play is also a defendant in the case. It has denied the charges against it.
Mayling Blanco, a lawyer for Full Play, told the jury on Tuesday that South American football bosses eagerly accepted such payments for “generations” and that it was just how business was done.
“The evidence will show here that everyone knew,” Blanco said. “There was no prohibition against payments to executives.”
Burzaco, who began his career as a Citigroup Inc banker, is expected to testify at the trial and could begin telling the jury his story as early as Wednesday, after lawyers for both sides finish their opening statements.
The probe has swept up numerous top officials.
Juan Ángel Napout, a Paraguayan who was president of CONMEBOL, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2018 after being convicted of receiving US$3.4 million in bribes and soliciting almost US$25 million. José María Marin, the former head of Brazil’s football federation, who was convicted at the same trial of pocketing US$3 million in bribes from sports marketing executives, was sentenced to four years and released in 2020.
In addition to those convictions at trial, prosecutors have obtained at least 27 guilty pleas from individuals as well as four corporate defendants, said John Marzulli, a spokesman for Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace. BA Times