Two former 21st Century Fox executives have been charged with allegedly paying millions of dollars in bribes to help Fox Sports win the lucrative United States broadcasting rights to the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups.
The indictments unsealed in the US District Court in Brooklyn yesterday (Monday) also included allegations of bribes paid to various Fifa executive committee members in return for their votes for the 2018 or 2022 World Cups.
Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez, who oversaw Fox’s Latin American sports business, were indicted on accusations of making payments to unnamed officials from South American federation Conmebol in exchange for confidential broadcast-rights bidding information.
Also charged are Gerard Romy, the former co-chief executive of Spanish media company Imagina and co-founder of Mediapro, and Uruguayan sports marketing company Full Play Group.
The parties have been charged with wire fraud, money laundering and related offences, while Romy and Full Play have also been charged with racketeering conspiracy.
Martinez and Lopez have also been accused using bribes and kickbacks to land the broadcasting rights to the Copa Libertadores and other tournaments. Prosecutors allege they then “used the loyalty secured through the payment of bribes” to “advance the business interests of Fox” and get the bidding information.
In 2011, Fox gained the US English-language rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
In 2015, Fifa controversially awarded Fox the rights for the 2026 event – which will be co-hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico – without a competitive bidding process.
They are the latest charges in a long-running investigation of corruption surrounding beleaguered world governing body Fifa, which began in 2015 and resulted in the downfall and arrest of several soccer executives.
The indictment read: “By conspiring to enrich themselves through bribery and kickback schemes relating to the sale of media and marketing rights to various soccer tournaments and events, among other schemes, the defendants deprived Fifa, the confederations and their constituent organizations — and, therefore, the national member associations, national teams, youth leagues and development programs that relied on financial support from their parent organizations – of the full value of those rights.
“The schemes had powerful anti-competitive effects, distorting the market for the commercial rights associated with soccer and undermining the ability of other sports marketing companies to compete for such rights on terms more favorable to the rights-holders.”
Lopez left his role as chief executive of Fox International Channels at the start of 2016 amid a restructure of the 21st Century Fox’s international television unit. He had been chief executive of FIC since 2011 and was the public face of high-profile international rights deals, including the 80-territory deal for Bundesliga rights announced at the 2013 Sportel trade fair. Upon leaving Fox, Lopez set up Wondery, the US-based podcast network.
Martinez is the former president of Fox Networks Group Latin America and worked for Fox across the Latin America region for 18 years.
Romy, 65, who co-founded Mediapro with Jaume Roures in 1994, sold his 12-per-cent shareholding Imagina, the parent company of the production group and agency, upon the takeover by Chinese private equity firm Orient Hontai at the end of 2017 and after he had stepped back from the sports industry.
Both Fox executives, who could face a maximum 20 years in jail, maintain their innocence.Steven McCool, a lawyer for Martinez, said: “We are certain that a jury will swiftly exonerate Carlos of these charges which are nothing more than stale fiction, while Lopez’s lawyer Matthew Umhofer, remarked: “It’s shocking that the government would bring such a thin case. The indictment contains nothing more than single paragraph about Mr. Lopez that alleges nothing remotely improper. Mr Lopez can’t wait to defend himself at trial.”A lawyer for Full Play told the Wall Street Journal that the company would plead not guilty to the charges and planned to vigorously defend itself at trial.
Lawyers for Romy and Fox Sports have yet to comment.
World Cup bribe accusations
The indictment unsealed on Monday also says that the late Nicolas Leoz, the former Conmebol president, and former Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ricardo Teixeira received bribes to vote for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid.
The US Department of Justice also alleges that Jack Warner, former president of Concacaf, the governing body in North and Central America, received $5m (€4.6m) in bribes from 10 different shell companies to vote for Russia to stage the 2018 tournament.
Rafael Salguero, the president of the Guatemala Football Federation (FENAFUTG), was promised a $1m bribe to vote for Russia, the indictment alleges.
Leoz, who died last August after being placed on house arrest in his native Paraguay, avoided extradition, as have Teixeira and Warner. In the case of Salguero, he pleaded guilty in 2018 to two counts of wire fraud conspiracy and one count each of racketeering conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
Leoz served as president of Paraguay-based Conmebol from 1986 to 2013 along with being a long-serving Fifa executive committee member. He was first indicted in 2015 as part of the US Justice Department’s original probe into bribery and financial corruption linked to broadcast and sponsorship rights for several leading football competitions.
Teixeira and Warner have both previously been banned for life by Fifa.