Bizarre episodes surround FIFA trial in Brooklyn

The trial of South American soccer officials charged in the FIFA bribery scandal is not only about corruption.

By: AP | Published: December 1, 2017 9:37 am
On FIFA trial Manuel Burga Manuel Burga leaves federal court in the Brooklyn. (Source: AP)

A juror dismissed for sleeping during hearings. A defendant allegedly doing a throat-slitting gesture to intimidate a witness. A judge admonishing a defendant for taking a paper clip and a pen from her clerk’s desk.

The trial of South American soccer officials charged in the FIFA bribery scandal is not only about corruption. It also has drawn some attention because of a series of bizarre episodes that have happened over three weeks of witnesses giving testimony and journalists going in and out of a Brooklyn courtroom to report on an investigation that has shaken the soccer world.

On Thursday, for example, judge Pamela Chen admonished defendant Manuel Burga, former president of the Peruvian soccer federation, for allegedly taking a paper clip and a pen from her clerk’s desk.

“No one, no party, nobody should be touching anything in this bench area,” Chen told him.

The federal judge actually tightened Burga’s bail conditions a couple of weeks ago when he allegedly sought to intimidate a witness 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. The witness, Alejandro Burzaco, an Argentinian former marketing executive who testified about paying millions in bribes, was shaken from the gesture and the trial was postponed at least an hour.

Burzaco and others have testified how they brokered the bribes paid to soccer officials in exchange for their influence in awarding lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for the World Cup and other major soccer tournaments. More than 40 defendants have been charged in the corruption case, with many, including Burzaco, pleading guilty in hopes of getting reduced sentences.

Besides Burga, the trial has other two defendants: Jose Maria Marin, former president of the Brazilian soccer federation and Juan Angel Napout, former president of the Paraguayan soccer federation and former president of CONMEBOL (South America’s soccer governing body).

In another bizarre event, Chen dismissed this week a member of the jury who slept during hearings. A couple of hours before lawyers and Chen had discussed how to dismiss him without embarrassing him. It was decided to do it in the courtroom without any other jurors present.

“We need the full attention of any juror. So I apologize but we’re going to have to let you go,” Chen told him. He was then escorted after his belongings were brought to him by U.S. Marshalls.

Besides journalists, Chen’s courtroom has been everyday filled with relatives of the defendants and lawyers from companies who have an interest in the case and who take notes continuously. Defendants eat sometimes sandwiches and a salad in the court’s cafeteria, like the lawyers, journalists and court’s staff who does the same.

Statements from witnesses have generated headlines around the world. A former Argentine government official, Jorge Delhon, killed himself hours after the court was told he took millions in bribes in exchange for handing out television rights. On Thursday his name came up again when a witness gave more details about how he paid the money.

Eladio Rodriguez, an Argentinian who worked for Burzaco, said that in 2013 he registered a $2.6 million payment to an entity he named “the government.”

“Everything that says government was Delhon,” he said.

Delhon dealt with the now-defunct government program Futbol para Todos (Football for All), which broadcast local soccer matches on public TV.

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