Former Fox executives stand trial in football rights bribery case

NEW YORK (AP) — Two former Fox executives went on trial on Tuesday, accused of bribing South American soccer officials to obtain television rights to one of the continent’s biggest annual tournaments and using the information gathered in the process to help bid to broadcast the World Cup. The world won by the network. It is the latest case to go to court in the sprawling FIFA corruption scandal.

Hernan López and Carlos Martinez are accused of paying bribes and bonuses to CONMEBOL officials to broadcast the Copa Libertadores, an annual Champions League-like club tournament in Europe, through a partnership with Torneos y Competencias, an Argentine production and marketing company.

Assistant US Attorney Victor Zappana told jurors in an opening statement that the alleged kickbacks — totaling millions of dollars — fueled a system of secret, no-bid, below-market contracts and “allowed disloyal football managers to live a life of luxury, buying up” Chanel , to buy Hermes,” referring to two famous luxury brands.

“Everyone has won except the game of football,” Zabana said at the trial in Brooklyn federal court, which is expected to last at least a month.

Prosecutors allege that the rewards enabled Lopez and Martinez to further Fox’s other interests in soccer, including obtaining confidential information from a high-ranking FIFA official and a FIFA official about bidding for US broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Zappana said the bribes helped “expand Fox’s reach”.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Victor Zappana makes his opening statement while signaling to Hernan Lopez, far left, in a red tie, in Brooklyn federal court, on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, in New York.  (Elizabeth Williams via The Associated Press)
Assistant U.S. Attorney Victor Zappana makes his opening statement while signaling to Hernan Lopez, far left, in a red tie, in Brooklyn federal court, on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via The Associated Press)

Lopez, who is from Argentina, is the former CEO of Fox International Channels. He left the company in 2016 to start Wondery, a podcast company. Martinez, a Mexican national, is the former president of the Latin American branch of Fox International.

Fox denied any involvement in the bribery. The company sold the South American soccer broadcasting entity in 2019 as part of a larger restructuring as it offloaded its movie studio, cable networks and international assets.

Another sports media and marketing company, Full Play Group SA, is also on trial with Lopez and Martinez, but allegations of bribery against that company involve various TV rights. Full Play, founded in Uruguay and owned by father and son duo Hugo and Mariano Jenkins, has been accused of paying bribes for the rights to the Copa America, the quadrennial national team competition, as well as World Cup qualifiers and one-off matches. , known as friendlies.

Lawyers for López and Martinez maintain that the former executives are being framed and retaliated by their one-time business partner in the Copa Libertadores deals. Alejandro Burzaco, the former president of Torneos, has agreed to cooperate and testify as a prosecution witness in several football corruption trials after being arrested for bribery. He is expected to testify on Wednesday.

López’s lawyer, John Gleason, argued in his opening statement that it was Burzaco who was secretly bribing officials of the South American Confederation, known as CONMEBOL, without López and Martinez’s knowledge. Burzaco now falsely accuses them of enhancing his value to prosecutors and staying out of jail, Gleeson said.

Hernan Lopez, former CEO of 21st Century Fox, arrives in federal court in Brooklyn, on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, in New York.  (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Hernan Lopez, former CEO of 21st Century Fox, arrives in federal court in Brooklyn, on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Lopez and Martinez began working with Burzaco in 2011, when Fox International Channels acquired the South American sports network that, along with the Torneos, was co-broadcasting the Copa Libertadores. Gleeson said Burzaco kept executives out of negotiations with CONMEBOL and refused to provide them with copies of contracts.

López was unaware of Burzaco’s behavior — he allegedly bribed CONMEBOL officials and took some TV rights for himself, rather than the Fox partnership — until 2014, when Burzaco’s Uruguayan rival presented him with a copy of the renewal contract and an audio recording of the negotiations.

Gleason said Lopez immediately alerted Fox’s internal audit and legal departments, which sent a team of accountants and investigators to Argentina. Burzaco was captured nine months later.

Gleason described Burzaco as a “mobile, talking crime enterprise” and a “professional criminal and con man”. He pleaded with the jurors to decide “whether you believe a single word he says” and said his testimony against López and Martinez was “an opportunity to strike back at his enemy, whom he blames for his death.”

“You’ll see him try to fight back,” said Gleason.

Burzaco pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges. He testified in 2017 that all three South Americans on FIFA’s executive committee took millions of dollars in bribes to support Qatar’s recently completed 2022 World Cup bid.

To date, more than two dozen people have pleaded guilty and two people have been convicted at trial in cases arising from a US-led investigation into tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks and kickbacks at the highest levels of soccer. Four corporate entities also pleaded guilty and four companies entered into deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements.

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