NEW YORK (AP) — A turning point in the investigation of soccer’s governing body came with a 6 a.m. wake-up call by the FBI to the five-star Miami hotel room of a Brazilian sports marketing executive named Jose Hawilla.
A startled Hawilla, after learning he was a target of the probe, eventually decided to cooperate by wearing a wire — a coup for U.S. prosecutors at the ongoing U.S. trial of three former South American soccer officials charged in the corruption scandal that’s embroiled FIFA.
The prosecutors have used the hours of the secretly recorded audio evidence to help bring charges against dozens of other soccer officials and marketing executives accused of paying them a fortune in bribes in exchange for their influence in awarding lucrative commercial rights to big tournaments. Several defendants have pleaded guilty since the case was announced in 2015.
U.S. authorities “know everything,” Hawilla said in one taped conversation with a colleague he was trying to protect, according to transcripts made public for the first time. “They have so much information that lying is the worst thing you can do.”
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Jurors have heard Hawilla’s recordings and testimony at the trial of former national soccer federation presidents Jose Maria Marin, of Brazil, Manuel Burga, of Peru, and Juan Angel Napout, of Paraguay. All pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and other charges, with their lawyers arguing they were framed by untrustworthy cooperators like Hawilla seeking a break in their own cases.
The trial, which continued on Wednesday, is in its fourth week in federal court in Brooklyn.
Hawilla, a 74-year-old grandfather originally from Sao Paulo, testified that he became head of the Traffic Group marketing firm after several years as a sports journalist. He testified he learned from the start that to win contracts for commercial rights for major soccer tournaments, soccer officials expected to be paid off in a systematic way, a necessary evil some in the business accepted but he found “revolting.”
He said to get rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament in the early 1990s he paid bribes to two of the biggest names in the scandal, former FIFA officials Jack Warner, of Trinidad and Tobago, and Chuck Blazer, of the United States. Warner remains overseas fighting extradition, while Blazer became a cooperator before dying earlier this year.
A partner of Hawilla explained to him “we had to pay a bribe to Jack Warner and that, for sure, Chuck Blazer was going to find out about it and we would have to pay a bribe to him as well,” Hawilla testified in Portuguese through an interpreter.
He added: “I did not agree with the practice, but, unfortunately, you are practically forced to do that.”
Hawilla told the jury that he and other marketing executives he worked with paid tens of millions of dollars over the years to other top soccer officials in bribes papered over by falsified contracts. He named another soccer official from the Cayman Islands who’s pleaded guilty, Jeffrey Webb, as someone who took a $10 million bribe in March 2013.
The FBI arrested Hawilla about two months after the Webb bribe. By 2014, prosecutors contend, he was a full-blown informant, luring Marin into an April 2014 conversation in which the defendant negotiated a bribe by saying, “It’s about time to have it coming my way. True or not?”
Hawilla responded: “Of course. That money had to be given to you.”
In another tape, Hawilla appeared to upset two business partners by telling them he wanted to pull out of the scheme so he could clean up his business and sell it. One cautioned that anyone who bought it would have to understand that, “There will always be payoffs. There will be payoffs forever.”
The same person is overheard saying, “I want to co-exist with and make all the presidents rich,” even if it meant less money for him.
Asked in court why someone would think that way, Hawilla boiled it down to one word: “Demagoguery.”