Two prominent Latin American football officials pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a New York court over their alleged roles in the corruption scandal engulfing the game’s graft-mired world governing body FIFA.
Rafael Callejas, who was president of Honduras from 1990 to 1994, and Juan Angel Napout, a FIFA vice president and former president of the South American football confederation CONMEBOL, are among a slew of current or former football officials charged with wrongdoing.
A total of 39 people and two companies have been charged by US authorities in connection with the multimillion-dollar corruption scandal that erupted at FIFA earlier this year when Swiss officials swooped on a luxury hotel in Zurich.
About a dozen have pleaded guilty over graft that dates back decades and has threatened to bring FIFA to its knees, along with its leadership.
Napout, a 57-year-old Paraguayan, was arrested earlier this month in another raid on the same five-star Baur Au Lac hotel and extradited to the United States earlier Tuesday, escorted by two US police officers, appearing in court just hours later.
Napout, who was arrested on December 3 alongside fellow FIFA vice president Alfredo Hawit of Honduras, pleaded not guilty to five charges of racketeering and bribery offenses.
FIFA, keen to be seen as cleaning up its act, suspended both for 90 days.
They are accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes in return for selling marketing rights for regional tournaments and World Cup qualifying matches.
Dressed in a blue sweater and black pants, Napout was released on bail of $20 million. His next hearing will be on March 16 and he will be under house arrest.
“He pleads not guilty,” his attorney John Pappalardo told the court.
– Private jet to US –
In the same Brooklyn court, Callejas — who was head of the Honduras football federation until August this year — similarly denied his guilt. He faces eight charges and was remanded in custody.
The 72-year-old Callejas, a current member of FIFA’s Television and Marketing Committee, is accused of receiving $1.6 million in bribes between March 2011 and January 2013 for broadcast rights of games played by the Honduran national team.
Callejas, who appeared in court wearing a checkered shirt and jeans, left Honduras on Monday on a private jet to face justice in the United States.
US prosecutors have vowed to leave no stone unturned in their quest to root out graft at FIFA.
Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey has said that those indicted had run corrupt schemes spanning decades.
FIFA’s long-serving president Sepp Blatter has also been suspended in the swirling scandal — much of the alleged wrongdoing happened under his watch and he is the subject of a Swiss criminal investigation.
The governing body’s ethics committee suspended Blatter and UEFA boss Michel Platini in October over a $2.0 million payment Blatter authorized to Platini in 2011, reportedly for work done a decade earlier.
Both men insist the payment was legitimate and part of an oral contract between Platini and FIFA.