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Star Witness in FIFA Corruption Trials Avoids Prison

Author: Zulfi Meerza  8 June 2023
2 min read

Zulfi Meerza of financial crime specialists Rahman Ravelli details the issues that led to a marketing executive being handed a non-custodial sentence after admitting his role in a football bribery scandal.

A former sports marketing executive recently walked free after owning up to using bribery to secure football broadcasting rights, having fully cooperated with authorities during their investigations.

A judge in Brooklyn, New York, imposed a sentence in May of time served with no fines on Alejandro Burzaco. He had assisted the US Department of Justice (DOJ) after admitting his part in a scheme to bribe soccer officials in Latin America for the rights to broadcast some of the continent’s most popular tournaments.

Burzaco had been at the centre of an investigation into corruption within football’s world governing body, FIFA. He had spent a total of 15 days giving evidence as a witness in two separate trials. Having pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy in November 2015, he spent eight years cooperating with US authorities. After initially turning himself in in Italy and being placed under house arrest, he did not spend any time in prison.  

Sentencing

The federal guidelines suggest that the sentencing range for Burzaco’s crimes is between 14 and 17 years in prison. But US District Judge Pamela Chen said she believed a non-custodial sentence was appropriate because of Burzaco’s “breathtaking” cooperation with the DOJ investigation into FIFA. She added that Burzaco provided more information on corruption in the worldwide football industry than any person in the case and chose to comply with the US investigation when he could have possibly avoided extradition to the US.

A non-custodial sentence was “almost necessary”, according to her, in order to provide an incentive for others who are involved in similar cases to come forward and cooperate with the government. The judge said there was no need for Burzaco’s release to be supervised because he had undergone “extraordinary rehabilitation” during his eight years in the US.

She did not fine Burzaco, as she said the punitive purposes of a fine had already been served, with Burzaco and his family having endured a “horrific and constant threat of violence” for his cooperation. But she did sign a forfeiture order for nearly $22 million, which Burzaco had agreed to in his guilty plea.

Addressing the court, Burzaco’s legal representative Jim Walden said his client is tormented by what he did but has now gone “above and beyond” in contributing to his community in New York, where he does voluntary work in a soup kitchen. Burzaco himself said he was still ashamed by what he had done and called his cooperation with the US authorities a “lifetime commitment”. 

Leniency

Burzaco’s case is a clear illustration of the benefits for prosecutors of utilising cooperating suspects in return for leniency. This is an approach that is used far more commonly in the US than in the UK.

UK law does cater for this process, through the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) and the Sentencing Act 2020 (SA). A SOCPA agreement covers an arrangement made between a specified prosecuting authority (such as the Crown Prosecution Service or the Serious Fraud Office) and defendants who are willing to provide assistance to the authority in order to secure either immunity from prosecution or a heavily-discounted sentence.

There have not been very many SOCPA immunity deals and UK prosecutors tend to be apprehensive when it comes to relying on cooperating offenders. There is, however, scope for UK prosecutors to make more use of SOCPA arrangements where they are appropriate, particularly in large-scale fraud and bribery cases. Providing the process is handled fairly, cooperating suspects in such cases could prove to be a hugely-important source of evidence, due to their knowledge of suspicious activities and their ability to potentially point prosecutors towards relevant and corroborating evidence.

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Zulfi Meerza

Senior Associate Solicitor

zulfi.meerza@rahmanravelli.co.uk
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Zulfi’s in-depth expertise in business crime investigations and serious regulatory matters makes him a logical choice to advise and represent corporates, board members, senior business figures and high net worth individuals throughout the life of a case.

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