A former banker who paid tens of millions in bribes to soccer officials won’t go to prison after he cooperated with authorities

May 12, 2023, 3:43 PM UTC

A banker-turned-sports marketing executive who admitted paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to corrupt Latin American soccer officials was spared from prison after serving as the star witness at two FIFA corruption trials.

Alejandro Burzaco was instead lauded Friday by US District Judge Pamela Chen, who cited his “extraordinary” help in rooting out corruption in international soccer over a period of eight years. Burzaco agreed to cooperate with US investigators even though it put his life in danger and kept him from returning to his native Argentina, the judge said after he gave an impassioned apology for his crimes. 

“It brings tears to my eyes,” Chen said as she paused to dab her eyes with a tissue. “It is not often that you can take a step back, as a judge, and feel proud,” she told Burzaco. “As you were speaking, I felt privileged and proud to participate in that.” 

In 2015, when the US announced charges against FIFA executives, Burzaco could have fled to Argentina and evaded prosecution like others who remain fugitives, the judge said. Instead, he pleaded guilty and began cooperating with authorities — a decision that “has been life-altering” for him, she said.

Burzaco, who was born and raised in Argentina and once worked as an investment banker for Citigroup Inc. in New York, was charged by US prosecutors in May 2015, when authorities raided a five-star hotel in Switzerland and arrested soccer bosses. The case exposed a sprawling fraud at the highest levels of FIFA, soccer’s governing body. 

Almost 20 soccer bosses were charged or convicted in the US investigation, Prosecutor Kristin Mace said. “These men were soccer royalty,” she said.

Burzaco’s testimony helped reveal the true depth of corruption in international soccer, and he did it despite the risk to his personal safety, Mace said. 

“There are many who would try to silence him through threats of violence,” the prosecutor said. Sentencing memos from the government and Burzaco’s lawyer were filed under seal.

Burzaco was “the Superman of cooperators,” who helped prosecutors “reach into that cesspool” of corruption in soccer, where “bribery is the name of the game,” said Jim Walden, Burzaco’s lawyer. 

During the 90-minute hearing Friday, the courtroom was filled with current and former FBI agents and prosecutors who’d worked on the case as well as Burzaco’s family from Argentina.

Fighting back tears, Burzaco said he’d “learned this hard lesson” and “will comply with the law for the rest of my life.” He told the judge, “I will accept your sentence with grace and dignity. I am very sorry and I humbly ask you for leniency and compassion.”

While Burzaco avoided prison, he must forfeit more than $21.69 million, “so that all of the profits that the government believes you earned through your conduct has been disgorged,” the judge said.

Chen hinted that Burzaco had received threats as a result of his cooperation. At the first trial, in 2017, special precautions to protect witnesses hadn’t prevented one defendant from making a slicing motion across his throat while Burzaco was on the stand, temporarily halting the proceeding, the judge said. Burzaco was also assailed by defense lawyers during his 15 days on the stand for both trials and was repeatedly called a liar. 

At a second trial this year, Burzaco spent 11 days on the stand, describing how he conspired with two former 21st Century Fox executives to bribe soccer officials to win the lucrative TV rights to the continent’s biggest annual tournament and help land broadcasting rights to the World Cup. He said Rupert Murdoch was so grateful he sent a complimentary note to one of the FIFA bosses. Fox wasn’t charged.

Two of the three soccer officials on trial in 2017 were convicted, and one of the former Fox executives was found guilty in March along with a Uruguayan sports marketing company.

Their trials stemmed from an international crackdown on cheating at FIFA. The investigation brought down some of the biggest names in the sport, including Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who was ousted as FIFA’s president after 17 years in the role.

Overall, the government’s investigation netted more than two dozen guilty pleas from people accused of participating in a global, 24-year conspiracy to bribe high-ranking soccer officials with six-figure sums for broadcast and media rights. Four corporate entities also pleaded guilty. 

The case is US v. Webb. 15-cr-252, US District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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