FIFA officials plead not guilty in soccer corruption probe
New York — A sprawling U.S. bribery prosecution that has scandalized soccer’s governing body took another step forward on Tuesday, with the former president of Honduras and a former FIFA vice president pleading not guilty at their first court appearance and authorities announcing that two other defendants would be extradited to face charges as well.
Former president Rafael Callejas, a current member of FIFA’s television and marketing committee, was ordered held without bail at a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn. A judge agreed to release former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout on $20 million bond with various restrictions, including electronic monitoring and home detention.
Both men are facing racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud charges for their alleged roles in a bribery scheme involving lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for the World Cup and soccer’s other biggest events. Their lawyers left the courtroom on Tuesday without speaking to reporters.
Callejas’ appearance came after Honduras officials say he decided to travel to the United States on the advice of his lawyers. Napout, a former president of the South American confederation from Paraguay, had consented to extradition from Switzerland, where he was arrested on Dec. 3.
The two were among 16 new defendants, most from Central and South America, named in a revised indictment that was unsealed earlier this month. U.S. prosecutors charged 14 others, including seven top FIFA officials arrested at Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, in May.
On Tuesday, authorities announced that two of the original 14 — Nicolas Leoz, another former head of the South American football confederation and Eduardo Li, former head of the Costa Rican football federation — would be extradited to the United States. A Paraguay appeals court approved Leoz’s extradition, while Li withdrew his appeal and agreed to depart Switzerland and be turned over to U.S. authorities.
The indictment alleges that in 2012 a marketing firm wired $500,000 to a Panama bank account so it could be paid as bribes to Callejas and another soccer official in exchange for broadcasting rights to qualifier matches for the 2022 World Cup. The indictment identified Napout as a member of a bloc of soccer officials known as the “Group of Six” that would receive annual bribes in exchange for supporting FIFA contracts with another marketing firm.
In a year-end letter to 209 FIFA member federations, suspended FIFA President Sepp Blatter has written he is “bewildered” by allegations he faces and will go before the FIFA ethics committee on Thursday with “a strong belief in justice.” He wrote that “although I have been suspended I am not isolated and will certainly not be silenced.”
Callejas served as president of Honduras from 1990 to 1994.