Former Fox executives plead not guilty in FIFA soccer corruption probe


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two former 21st Century Fox executives and a South American sports marketing company pleaded not guilty on Thursday to criminal charges in New York in the long-running corruption probe surrounding FIFA, the world governing body for soccer.

The former Fox executives, Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez, and Full Play Group SA entered their pleas to crimes including wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy at an arraignment before U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen in Brooklyn.

U.S. prosecutors said the defendants and co-conspirators bribed soccer officials to secure media and marketing rights to various soccer tournaments, using shell companies and sham consulting contracts to hide the scheme.

The charges were detailed on Monday in an amended indictment in which prosecutors for the first time said representatives for Russia and Qatar separately bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Bond was set at $15 million for Lopez and Martinez, who will also face nightly curfews.

While prosecutors called Lopez a substantial flight risk, with strong ties to Argentina, they did not demand he be jailed.

“It doesn’t appear realistic that anyone’s going anywhere,” Chen said during the arraignment, which was conducted by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The charges, including over the World Cups, are part of a sprawling FIFA corruption probe unveiled in May 2015.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after the indictment became public that Russia won its 2018 hosting rights “completely legally. It is in no way linked to any bribes.”

Organizers of the 2022 World Cup denied the new allegations, saying there was no evidence Qatar won the tournament unethically or by flouting FIFA bidding rules.

Prosecutors accused Lopez and Martinez of scheming to bribe officials at South America’s soccer federation CONMEBOL to win rights for that continent’s top club tournament, Copa Libertadores.

They were also accused of using bribes to help Fox obtain inside information about bidding for U.S. broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fox paid $400 million for the English-language rights to both tournaments in 2011.

Walt Disney Co bought most of 21st Century Fox in 2019. Disney is not a defendant.

Prosecutors said Full Play, which is based in Buenos Aires but incorporated in Uruguay, targeted officials at CONMEBOL and North American federation CONCACAF to win rights for events including Copa Libertadores and World Cup qualifying matches.

More than 40 defendants have been criminally charged in the probe, and at least 30 have pleaded guilty.

Two defendants, former Brazilian soccer chief Jose Maria Marin and former CONMEBOL head Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay, were convicted at trial in 2017.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Noeleen Walder and Steve Orlofsky