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Split verdict for ex-Fox execs in soccer rights bribe case

March 10, 2023 Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press
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A former Fox executive was convicted Thursday of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to nab broadcasting rights to the World Cup and other top soccer matches. A second ex-executive was acquitted.

A Brooklyn federal jury deliberated four days before returning the verdicts. Hernan Lopez, the former CEO of Fox International Channels, was convicted. Carlos Martinez, who headed the Latin America affiliate, was acquitted.

Prosecutors said the case revealed the corruption of international soccer. Defense lawyers said the former Fox execs were framed by an admitted criminal who was trying to minimize his own punishment.

An emotional Lopez hugged supporters in the courtroom after hearing the verdict, while his attorneys appeared stunned. The judge allowed him to be released on bail pending sentencing.

John Gleeson, an attorney for Lopez, asserted there were “legal and factual errors.”

“We look forward to vindicating our client on appeal,” he said.

Martinez’s lawyer, Steve McCool, said “justice was served today for Carlos.”

“The jurors heard that he was an innocent man, and that he should never have been here in the first place,” McCool said outside court.

A South American sports media and marketing company also was convicted of graft allegations — involving different TV rights. Full Play Group SA, incorporated in Uruguay, was accused of paying bribes for the rights to the Copa America, a quadrennial national team competition, as well as to World Cup qualifying matches.

New York-based Fox Corp., which split from a subsidiary of international channels during a restructuring in 2019, was not charged and has denied any involvement in the bribery scandal.

Lopez and Martinez are among dozens of people who have pleaded guilty or been convicted after a U.S.-led investigation into international soccer and its governing federation, FIFA. The probe burst into view in 2015, when U.S. prosecutors accused the leaders of soccer federations of tarnishing the sport for nearly a quarter century by taking $150 million in bribes and payoffs.

FIFA went on to expand and rename its executive leadership group. Then-President Sepp Blatter was forced out and replaced by current President Gianni Infantino, who has insisted the organization has reformed. However, it has in recent years been criticized for tolerating alleged abuse of migrant workers during the construction of World Cup stadiums used in Qatar last year and of maintaining inferior payments and tournament arrangements for women players.

In the Lopez and Martinez case, prosecutors’ star witness was the executives’ former business associate Alejandro Burzaco. He has cooperated in soccer corruption investigations since his 2015 arrest in a related bribery case.

During 11 days on the witness stand, Burzaco said he and the two executives paid millions of dollars in bribes to undermine competing bids for the TV rights to the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest annual tournament, the Copa Libertadores, and help land broadcasting rights to the sport’s most lucrative competition, the World Cup.

Two jurors who agreed to speak after the trial said Burzaco was not a factor in their decisions.

“We didn’t find him credible,” said one of the jurors, Robert Rose, who works as an attorney.

Instead jurors relied on reams of documents presented during the case.

Rose said “it wasn’t tough” to convict Lopez, and jurors wrestled over reaching a verdict for Martinez. In the end, Rose said, “there was enough doubt.”

Defense lawyers said Burzaco lied about the former Fox executives to minimize his own conduct and curry favor with the government ahead of his own sentencing. He pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges.

Prosecutors allege the payoffs yielded confidential information from high-ranking soccer officials, including those at FIFA, that enabled Fox to beat out rival ESPN and secure U.S. broadcasting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

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