Soccer Millionaire Says He Regrets Joining Bribe Scheme

  • Argentine sports marketing official Burzaco pleaded guilty
  • U.S. judge unseals transcripts for Burzaco, Webb, Margulies

When former Citigroup Inc. employee Alejandro Burzaco bought a minority stake in an Argentine sports marketing company in 2005, he learned that his new firm had been bribing soccer officials for years, according to court records unsealed on Monday.

Rather than walk away from Torneos y Competencias, Burzaco elected to pay bribes and kickbacks to “multiple” soccer officials for the marketing rights to tournaments, he told a U.S. judge in Brooklyn, New York, last November. The transcript of Burzaco’s guilty plea, entered in a courtroom closed to the public, was unsealed Monday at the request of Bloomberg News.

“I was informed that the agreement had been in place for some time,” said Burzaco. “I know that I should have walk away at that point, but instead, I agreed to work for Torneos, and agreed to take an active role in the bribery schemes. I regret the decision. I was wrong.”

Burzaco, who became the chief executive officer of Torneos in October 2006, said his illicit payments continued until 2015. He agreed to forfeit $21.6 million.

In pleading guilty, Burzaco said he had worked for 15 years at Citigroup. Bank spokesman Mark Costiglio declined to comment on Burzaco.

Unsealed Transcripts

The judge also unsealed the guilty plea transcripts of Jose Margulies, a Brazilian middleman who admitted paying bribes, and Jeffrey Webb, a former president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or Concacaf, who said he took illicit payments. He is from the Cayman Islands.

Burzaco said he joined members of two other sports marketing companies in agreeing to pay tens of millions of dollars in bribes to soccer officials for the rights to the Copa America Centenario, a 32-game tournament scheduled for 10 U.S. cities in June. The tournament was arranged by officials of Concacaf and the South American soccer organization, Conmebol, who took bribes.

“Ultimately, I decide not to pay a bribe or kickback to Conmebol and Concacaf officials in connection with the 2016 tournament because of fear of law enforcement scrutiny,” Burzaco said. “Nonetheless, I know that it was wrong to agree with the bribe payment itself.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Levy asked Burzaco, then 51, if he could communicate with his lawyers in English.

‘Since Kindergarten’

“I’ve been studying in Argentina English since kindergarten,” Burzaco said on Nov. 16. He said he had studied economics in Argentina and New York City, and he received a degree in the subject in his native country.

“I work 15 years for Citibank, so I practice my English, and I’ve been dealing with U.S. companies very often, so I had a good chance to practice.”

Burzaco pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. He was released on $20 million bail.

Fifteen people have pleaded guilty to their role in a U.S. crackdown on soccer corruption in the Americas. Prosecutors say soccer officials and business executives paid more than $200 million in bribes for media and marketing rights to tournaments, countries hoping to host the World Cup, and elections at FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

Prosecutors may ask judges to seal transcripts of defendants who plead guilty and are cooperating in investigations. The Justice Department is investigating the role of banks in facilitating money laundering payments. 

Commercial Rights

Webb, who pleaded guilty a week later, admitted he took bribes for commercial rights to a variety of tournaments before and after his election as Concacaf president in May 2012. He agreed to forfeit $6.7 million.

When he pleaded guilty, Webb was under house arrest in Georgia, where he served as a stay-at-home dad, his attorney Edward O’Callaghan told U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie. His wife is a practicing physician in the Atlanta area, which means Webb is “solely responsible for the care” of their 18-month-old child, O’Callaghan said.

“He is a busy man,” Dearie said.

In the transcripts that were released, several pages about Webb were blacked out, along with smaller portions on the proceedings for the other two men.

Traffic Group

Margulies, who was 76 when he pleaded guilty two days after Webb, admitted that in 1986 he began helping a friend, Jose Hawilla, the owner of Brazilian-based Traffic Group, obtain the commercial rights to tournaments. That help turned to bribes in 1991, when he began passing bribes from Traffic to Conmebol officials, he said. Hawilla pleaded guilty earlier and agreed to forfeit $151 million.

“Although I did not receive any commission for these payments, I made them in order to maintain -- to keep my relationship with Traffic,” Margulies said. “I did these payments in regular fashion in the name of Traffic until around 2007.”

Margulies said he also he made bribe payments from 2000 to 2015 on behalf of a company that was originally a joint venture of Traffic and Torneos. It later was a joint venture of Torneos and other investors, he said. He received 1 percent commissions for those later money transfers, which flowed through U.S. banks, he said. 

“I am remorseful for the problems I have caused for my family, the world of soccer and the United States,” said Margulies, who was released on $10 million bail. He agreed to forfeit $9.2 million.

Like other men his age, Margulies took a variety of medicines, for diabetes, gastric issues, his prostate, and high blood pressure, he said.

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