US judge throws out two soccer bribery convictions

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A U.S. judge has thrown out the convictions of a former Fox executive and an Argentine sports marketing company for attempting to bribe soccer officials in exchange for lucrative broadcasting contracts.

In a Friday night decision, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen in Brooklyn said the March 9 convictions of Hernan Lopez and Full Play Group could not stand because the federal law governing honest services wire fraud did not cover foreign commercial bribery.

She said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on May 11 to throw out the unrelated corruption conviction of Joseph Percoco, a onetime aide to former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, had put new limits on when the fraud law could be applied.

“None of the government’s appeals to common law, state law, civil law, foreign law, or codes of conduct, overcome the basic fact that there is no precedential authority to support the application of this federal criminal statute … to foreign commercial bribery,” Chen wrote in a 55-page decision.

The judge also voided Lopez’s and Full Play’s money laundering convictions, because they were predicated on the fraud convictions.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Breon Peace in Brooklyn on Saturday said the office was reviewing the decision.

David Sarratt, a lawyer for Lopez, said: “We are obviously pleased with Judge Chen’s thorough and correct decision. We have never stopped believing in our client’s innocence.”

Full Play’s lawyer Carlos Ortiz said his client was grateful for the decision. “We very much appreciate the court’s complete vindication,” Ortiz added.

Lopez and Full Play were among more than 40 defendants to be criminally charged since the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 unveiled a sweeping probe into soccer corruption, including at FIFA, the sport’s world governing body.

At least 31 people and corporate entities pleaded guilty, and two soccer officials were convicted in a 2017 jury trial.

Prosecutors said Lopez, the former chief executive of Fox International Channels, schemed to bribe officials at South American soccer federation CONMEBOL to win rights for that continent’s most popular club tournament, Copa Libertadores.

Full Play was accused of scheming to bribe officials at CONMEBOL and the North American federation CONCACAF to win media and marketing rights to Copa Libertadores and World Cup qualifying matches.

A co-defendant, Carlos Martinez, a former president of Fox International Channels Latin America, was acquitted.

The case relied heavily on testimony from Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of Argentine sports marketing firm Torneos, who pleaded guilty in 2015 and cooperated with prosecutors. Chen sentenced him in May to time served, meaning no prison.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)