NEW YORK — A former top South American soccer official was sentenced on Wednesday to nine years in prison for pocketing millions of dollars in cash bribes as part of the sprawling FIFA corruption scandal.
Juan Angel Napout, of Paraguay, received the sentence in federal court in New York City, where he and another soccer official from Brazil were found guilty late last year of racketeering conspiracy and other charges. The trial stemmed from a U.S.-led investigation resulting in charges against dozens of people and entities accused of orchestrating tens of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
Napout — the former president of Paraguay's soccer federation and of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL — appeared stoic throughout a five-hour hearing in a Brooklyn courtroom, even when his wife was allowed to stand and ask the judge for mercy. When it was his turn to speak, he kept it brief.
"I know America is a compassionate country," he told U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen. "I just ask for your compassion."
A request by prosecutors to sentence the already-jailed Napout to 20 years prison was excessive, Chen said. But she also said she had difficulty reconciling his public persona as a do-gooder with his "hidden life" spent enriching himself on the deep-rooted corruption that's plagued a sport he professed to love.
Napout, 60, presented himself in public as a crusader "who would root out corruption, all the while taking bribes," the judge said, adding that his wealthy background made his behavior all the more baffling.
"He took millions of dollars he didn't need," she said.
At trial, prosecutors spelled a scheme by soccer officials from across the globe to accept massive bribes from companies in exchange for awarding marketing rights to major soccer tournaments without going through an open bidding process.
The government's star witness, a former marketing executive from Argentina, Alejandro Burzaco, testified that he and his company arranged to pay $160 million in bribes over the course of several years. Some of the money was demanded by a FIFA official in exchange for helping rig a vote that gave Qatar hosting rights for the World Cup in 2022, he said.
By the time Napout was arrested in 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland, he had collected well over $3 million in exchange for his support of marketing contracts for the Copa América, Copa Libertadores and World Cup Qualifier tournaments, and had agreed to receive more than $20 million more, prosecutors said in court papers. A secret ledger seized in the investigation showed he was given cash bribes of up $250,000 about two dozen different times, plus Paul McCartney concert tickets worth more than $10,000, the papers added.
José Maria Marin, the former top soccer official of Brazil who was found guilty along with Napout, was sentenced last week to four years in prison. A third defendant, Manuel Burga, the former top soccer official of Peru, was acquitted.
In a statement on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said that Napout "rose to the highest ranks of soccer only to turn his back on the institutions and people he was entrusted to serve."