Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Manhattan/Newark — When US authorities shocked the soccer world by making corruption arrests in Switzerland in May 2015, a key bag man disappeared. His whereabouts remained a dark mystery for the next 2 1/2 years, sparking rumours and fears that he was secretly helping prosecutors.

On Wednesday, Eladio Rodriguez surfaced as a prosecution witness in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, to testify against three former South American soccer officials on trial for taking bribes.

Rodriguez told jurors how he arranged tens of millions of dollars in bribes from his former Argentine sports marketing firm, Torneos Y Competencias, to the defendants and others in exchange for broadcast rights to tournaments.

He offered jurors an insider’s account of a scheme that ran for more than two decades, as his company and two other sports-marketing firms teamed up to use offshore accounts to route secret payments to the men on trial and others at Fifa, international soccer’s governing body.

Rodriguez, 71, had worked for Alejandro Burzaco, the former CEO of Torneos, who pleaded guilty and earlier testified as a co-operating witness about bribing some of the world’s biggest broadcasters to win lucrative, multi-year rights to tournaments.

Burzaco told jurors about bribes to secure broadcasting rights not only to South American tournaments but also World Cup matches in 2026 and 2030.

In his turn on the witness stand, Rodriguez implicated the three defendants on trial: Jose Maria Marin, 85, the former head of Brazil’s federation and once on Fifa’s organising committee for the Olympics; Juan Angel Napout, 59, a Paraguayan and former Fifa official who was president of South American soccer’s governing body; and Manuel Burga, 60, a Peruvian soccer official and former member of Fifa’s development committee.

Rodriguez said the three men were part of a group of six South American soccer officials who took his bribes so that Burzaco’s company would get broadcast rights. Each of the three was involved with Conmebol, the federation that governs South American soccer.

"The payments were made for the purpose of maintaining a fluid relationship with Conmebol, to get their approval to sign these contracts," said Rodriguez, who testified under a co-operation deal with US prosecutors.

He has not been charged with a crime but agreed to forfeit $675,000 in bonuses he received over 23 years.

Rodriguez testified that he kept track of hundreds of illicit payments he made over the years, e-mailing himself spreadsheets.

Prosecutor Sam Nitze showed jurors two ledgers of payments from 2013 and 2014, which revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and wire transfers made from an entity Torneos controlled in the Cayman Islands to banks in Switzerland, the Netherlands and New York. They reflected annual payments of $600,000 to each man.

The jury almost did not get to see the records, which were recovered by a US auditor in June 2015 on a backup company computer.

Rodriguez said that early in the 1990s his bosses instructed him to destroy all records on a company server in Uruguay to prevent the information from getting into the hands of authorities or competitors.

He followed the order when Burzaco was charged by the US in May 2015.

Fed shredders

"People were very shocked," he said. "I saw people destroying information," he added, describing employees feeding shredders with Torneos documents.

Rodriguez said he "contacted people in the tech department who handled the servers in Uruguay" and told them either to destroy the records or "bring them back".

Rodriguez, who served in Argentina’s navy in the Antarctic before becoming Burzaco’s key lieutenant, said he was not even a soccer fan.

Torneos, which was charged with conspiracy, has admitted to widespread bribery and prosecutors agreed to drop the case if the company co-operated and agreed to other terms.

The firm agreed to forfeit $89m, while Burzaco is forfeiting $21.6m. A Brazilian sports marketing executive, Jose Hawilla, whose company teamed up with Torneos to pay bribes, pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $151m.

The trial is the first since US authorities raided a luxury Zurich hotel in May 2015. Since then, US prosecutors secured almost two dozen guilty pleas.

Prosecutors have said soccer officials took almost $200m in bribes from sports-marketing executives in the Americas seeking media and marketing rights to tournaments.

The scandal unseated top leaders at Fifa, including longtime president Sepp Blatter, and cast a shadow over the World Cup, the planet’s most popular sporting event.

Bloomberg

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