FIFA trial: It's a mob affair
Juan Angel Napout arrives at the federal court for the trial in New York. Photo: Richard Drew/AP
16.11.2017By Declan Hill
The Brooklyn Federal Court House here in New York has seen a lot of mob trials. Over the years, there have been cases involving the five big Mafia families – the Bonanno, Luchese, Gambino, Colombo and Genovese. There have been trials featuring Russian and Asian organized crime mobsters, violent international street gangs and sex trafficking syndicates.
Now there is the FIFA trial.
It is one of the most important legal cases in sports history: a massive, sprawling affair that features the arrest, extradition and detention of dozens of senior sports officials and executives. These people were at the very top of the sports governance world: More than 20 of them have already pled guilty, but three senior international football executives are on trial for a range of corruption offences.
Manuel Burga, the former Head of Peruvian Football; José Maria Marin, the former head of the Brazilian Football Federation; and – most importantly – Juan Ángel Napout, the Head of the Paraguayan Football Association, a FIFA Vice-President and also the man who ran the chapter of FIFA – CONMEBOL – that runs the sport for hundreds-of-millions of people in Latin America. Together, these three men controlled much of football in that continent, from the very top international matches down to the youth leagues playing in the back-lots of the barrios.
King Midas of corruption
They were also the King Midases of Corruption - just about everything they touched in international football became corrupt. This is the view of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) who investigated and are now prosecuting this case.
The language used in the trial of these three sports executives is rich with terms like “bribery”, “bag-man”, “pay-offs”, “money-laundering”, “commercial fraud” and “racketeering”.
In the opening statement by the anti-mafia prosecutor Keith Edelman and in hundreds of pages of court documents, the DoJ claims that the accused corrupted or received bribes from international exhibition games, the Gold Cup, World Cup Qualifying matches, CONMEBOL sponsorship deals, World Cup hosting rights and the TV broadcasting rights for numerous sporting tournaments.
A number of high-profile media companies – FOX Sports (the owners of the World Cup Broadcast Rights for 2018, 2022 and 2026), Brazil’s massive TV Globo and Mexico’s Televisa – have all been mentioned as being involved in paying bribes.
The money from this corrupted world was taken by some FIFA executives to pay for their lavish life-styles. One of the men associated with the case but not on trial, Jeffrey Webb, former President of CONCACAF – the organization that runs football in North America – spent twenty-five-thousand dollars in one night in a strip bar. Some of the money that Webb spent in the bar came from defrauded funds of the Cayman Island youth football leagues set up for children in his home country.
Another man whose evidence features in this trial was Chuck Blazer, the now deceased senior FIFA Vice-President and CONCAFF heavy-weight. He made so much money from international football scams that he kept an entire, luxury apartment in Trump Towers just for his cats.
“Picking up daisies”
Part of the reason this trial is so exceptional is that the defense lawyers agree with the prosecutors. They agree that just about everything inside FIFA and the governance of international football was corrupted. They agree that bribes were paid. They agree that there were illegal wire transfers of hundreds-of-millions of dollars. It is just that they say their men are innocent executives who have been fingered by the truly guilty.
Charles Stillman – defence lawyer for the ex-Brazilian Football President, José Maria Marin – likened the corruption in international football organizations like FIFA and CONMEBOL to a children’s football match where his client “was not one of them. He’s kind of like the youngster standing off at the side, picking up daisies and looking around while others are running full steam ahead.”
The Court of FIFA
At the centre of the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, is a twenty-foot, post-modern light-sculpture-cum-chandelier. The Baur au Lac is a six-star hotel with a sheet turn-down service, chocolates on the bed and rooms that begin at $1200 U.S. dollars a night. It is where FIFA executives liked to stay when they were in Zurich and, according to the FBI, it is where some of the dodgy deals and FIFA corruption was enacted and where it all began to end.
At dawn of May 27th, 2015 the closed, chummy FIFA world had a metaphorical bucket of ice-cold water poured on it. Policemen for the Swiss Organized Crime Task Force drove up to the front door of the hotel. The whole scene was unusual in a parking lot used to limousines and Rolls Royces. For the police officers had a circus-clowns-in-the-Volkswagen look about them. They were mostly big men crammed into modest-sized cars. But that did not deter the police officers, they pushed open the doors of the hotel and grabbed senior FIFA executives from their beds and took them off to prison.
Cue chaos at FIFA and an international scandal that stretched across the world.
Six months later, the drama was repeated. December 3, 2015, Swiss Police – again at dawn – drove up to the Baur au Lac Hotel. Again, the officers jumped out of modest cars and again they chased the great and the not-so-good of the footballing world all over the luxury hotel.
Essentially, what defense lawyers are now arguing in this New York court-room is that most of the first lot of FIFA executives arrested at Baur au Lac Hotel turned and fingered anyone they could to reduce their sentences. For example, Jeffrey Webb, the man who spent $25,000 in a strip bar, was one of these men and he very quickly pled guilty. A move that aided the prosecution.
Some legal experts agree with this assessment, “Whenever you have a [judicial investigation] of pervasive corruption,” says David Larkin, a Washington D.C. based lawyer and co-director of the Change FIFA organization. “It often turns into a foot race to see who can get to the police first to cut a deal.”
“Serious security risks”
Incredibly, during the months of pre-trial legal arguments while the defense and mob-experienced DoJ lawyers hammered away at each other, neither side denied the characterization of FIFA as a criminal organization. Where the defense and prosecution part ways is concerning the other accusations that are far more serious than even the pervasive nest of FIFA commercial corruption.
For there is a trial within a trial that pushes this Brooklyn case far beyond anything previously seen in the decades of FIFA scandals. It is revealed in interviews with confidential sources and a thorough reading of the legal documents associated with the case.
When speaking about these charges, the legal language changes from accusations of “bribery” and “pay-offs” to “conduct involving obstruction of justice”, “witness tampering”, “intimidation of witnesses” and “serious security risks for certain witnesses”.
This is high-priced legal talk for “this is a mob trial”. It means that there is potentially someone out there who could take action against the witnesses; someone who could influence or harm the members of jury; someone who has been threatening witnesses and telling them to shut up. The prosecution and their witnesses say that there have been clear and persistent death threats against some of their witnesses.
It is no coincidence that the big-gun lawyers for the prosecution have experience in mob trials. For so serious are these charges, that the FBI and DoJ have convinced a succession of federal judges to try the case under the 1970 law specifically enacted to reduce the power of the mafia – the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
To get this information for this specific RICO-based trial, the FBI had to, at times, collect evidence as they would for a mob investigation. The documents are full of descriptions of “secret recordings” obtained by “undercover witnesses”.
This method of gathering evidence is not something that the federal agents employ lightly. Joe Pistone is “Donnie Brasco”, the most famous of all FBI undercover mob agents and the author of a number of best-selling books and a Hollywood movie describing his successful infiltration into mob-organizations.
Pistone is following the trial and he described to Play the Game, “you cannot do an undercover investigation shot-gun. Gathering undercover is a long process where you have to have very serious suspicions against very serious type of alleged criminal. Inside the bureau all kinds of people have to sign off on it.”
“Sensational and disturbing evidence”
The allegations centre around the Paraguayan football official and FIFA/CONMEBOL senior executive, Juan Ángel Napout. The DoJ say that Napout tried to obstruct justice in a dramatic, international conspiracy where, even as the police were coming to arrest him in Switzerland, he was frantically ordering his aides to hide his electronic devices and computers.
Following an international search these devices were eventually seized by FBI agents. However, the search warrants used in obtaining them have been sealed from the public. Part of the reason the warrants have been sealed is that the government alleges there is evidence that, if revealed, would jeopardize the safety of various witnesses. They claim that witnesses have been followed, their identities revealed and that they have been threatened.
Juan Ángel Napout and his lawyers deny all these charges. They are fighting aggressively to show that Napout is innocent.
However, Charles Stillman, the legal representative for José Maria Marin, ex-Head of Brazilian Football, describes the charges against Napout as “sensational and disturbing evidence”. He has urged the judge to separate the trial against his “daisy-picking” client from that of Juan Ángel Napout. Stillman says that his client cannot receive a fair trial if associated with another defendant with such accusations against him.
The judge disagreed with Stillman, however, it is difficult to argue that the atmosphere and conduct around the legal process is like a major mob trial. In America, they do not screw around when someone starts threatening witnesses and jeopardizing their safety. The identity of the jury members and their back-ups has been kept secret. Every day of the trial, U.S. Marshals guard the jury and transport them back and forth from a secure location.
However, events in the actual court-room have caught up with the potential outside threats. On the third day of the trial, the court was suspended when Manuel Burga, the Peruvian football official, twice drew his finger across his throat in what prosecutors described as "a slashing motion" when looking at a prosecution witness. Burga’s legal team claimed that he had scratched his throat. Pity for them that the incidents had been caught on video. Burga’s bail conditions were immediately tightened by the judge. The witness tearfully testified that he has already received death threats for his willingness to appear in the court.
Sadly, there has already been one life taken by the trial. Jorge Delhon was an Argentinean senior football executive. He was named on Tuesday as being involved in a network of bribes connected with the TV broadcast rights. A few hours later, he threw himself under a train.
For years, reporters have been fond of saying “FIFA mafia”, “Mobsters of Football” – or calling its former President, Sepp Blatter “the Godfather”. It has made for good copy, sold lots of media space – but now we have a problem of word inflation for what words can we use now that there really is a trial that features such tragedies and claims of high-level mobster crimes?