NEW YORK: A US jury acquitted a “thrilled” Peruvian former soccer boss at the FIFA corruption trial on Tuesday, allowing him to jet home while two convicted co-defendants await sentencing from behind bars.
The panel cleared 60-year-old Manuel Burga — a former head of Peru’s soccer federation and ex-FIFA development committee member — on one count of racketeering conspiracy on the seventh day of deliberations in New York.
The jury returned the verdict following the Christmas holiday after convicting Jose Maria Marin, former head of Brazil’s Football Confederation and Juan Angel Napout, former head of Paraguayan football on Friday. They were previously deadlocked on Burga.
The Peruvian was arrested in 2015, when the United States unveiled the largest graft scandal in world soccer, indicting 42 officials and marketing executives, as well as the sports company Traffic, with corruption crimes totalling more than $200 million.
But more than two and a half years later, a bribery trial opened in a Brooklyn federal court with only three defendants in the dock — one of whom now walks free.
While the extraordinary trial exposed systemic corruption at the heart of the world’s most popular sport, US federal prosecutors’ case against Burga was considered weak.
Prosecutors themselves conceded that he never received bribery money, despite contending he agreed to. His lawyer said Burga would now fly out of the United States on Tuesday and be reunited with his family in Lima, Peru on Wednesday.
“He is thrilled to be able see his family after two years of this ordeal,” defence lawyer Bruce Udolf told AFP by telephone.
While US prosecutors did a “great job” in investigating the soccer industry, in the case of his client, Udolf said, “the jury reached the right result”.
“There was no evidence that he received any money at all. In fact, the government didn’t even contend that he had,” he added.
At trial, prosecutors accused Burga of intimidating a key witness, Alejandro Burzaco, by twice drawing a finger across his neck in a throat-slashing gesture while the Argentine — who himself plead guilty — testified.
Udolf said his client had scratched his neck but District Judge Pamela Chen thought otherwise and, on November 15, ordered Burga confined with GPS monitoring and stripped him of his access to phone and, except to his lawyer.
The trial lifted the lid on the life of privilege, luxury and excess enjoyed by members of FIFA’s executive committee — of personal chauffeurs, private jets and “presidential treatment,” luxury hotels, meetings in idyllic resorts in the Bahamas or Mauritius, and even cruises on the Danube for wives, children, and grandchildren.
The government amassed 30 million pages of evidence and said Marin, 85, and Napout, 59, were blinded by greed into accepting more than $17 million in bribes. The formerly powerful pair have been in custody since Friday and face at least 10 years in prison.
Marin was convicted on six of seven counts against him, and Napout of three out of five.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
There is currently no date scheduled for their sentencing and their lawyers have vowed to fight to absolve the pair.
Twenty-four of the 42 individuals indicted in May 2015 have cut deals in return for guilty pleas — two of whom have already been sentenced by Chen.
Another 15 remain in their own countries, including Brazilian football confederation president Marco Polo Del Nero, who was earlier this month banned from soccer for 90 days as part of FIFA’s own investigation into corruption.