December 16, 2016 / 10:35 PM / 7 months ago

Exclusive - Televisa affiliate surfaces in widening FIFA bribery probe

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The logo of broadcaster Televisa is seen outside its headquarters in Mexico City, Mexico December 14, 2016.Henry Romero

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An unnamed company described in a sweeping probe of corruption in football's world governing body FIFA matches the description of a close affiliate of Grupo Televisa (TLVACPO.MX), the largest broadcaster in Latin America, according to a Reuters review of U.S. and Swiss government documents.

In court papers filed on Tuesday, U.S. prosecutors said an affiliate of a major broadcasting company headquartered in Latin America helped to pay millions of dollars in bribes to obtain the rights for the next four World Cup tournaments in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Reuters has determined that the affiliate is Mountrigi Management Group Ltd., a Swiss company formed by Televisa that obtained the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 games in those countries and across the region.

Swiss company registration documents show that Mountrigi and Televisa are registered in that country under the same address and share several board members.

The court documents do not state that either the companies or their executives are targets of the investigation. Neither company has been charged with wrongdoing.

"We have no knowledge it refers to us," a Televisa spokesman said in an email, adding that the Department of Justice has not contacted the company to ask about the FIFA case.

In the court documents, prosecutors said "Broadcasting Company Executive #1" helped pay the bribes to the FIFA official. The Televisa spokesman denied the documents referred to one of its executives. Reuters was unable to determine the identity of the executive.

"We are certain all of the people from Mountrigi or Televisa that have dealt with FIFA have acted correctly and have not paid any bribes nor any kickback to FIFA official related to the acquisition of rights," the Televisa spokesman said.

Willi Dietschi, a Swiss attorney who is listed in Swiss company registration documents as the president of the board of directors of both Mountrigi and Televisa's corporate entity in Switzerland, referred questions to the Latin American broadcaster.

John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York located in Brooklyn, which is handling the case, declined to comment.

The reference marks the first time a Mexican company has come under scrutiny by U.S. prosecutors in the sweeping FIFA investigation. Mexican broadcasters have played an outsized role in international football since the early days of the sport's move into lucrative television markets.

So far 43 individuals and businesses from 20 countries have been indicted by U.S. prosecutors on racketeering, wire-fraud, money laundering and other charges arising from the probe. Twenty people and two related companies have pleaded guilty.

The logo of broadcaster Televisa is seen at a billboard outside its headquarters in Mexico City, Mexico December 14, 2016.Henry Romero

Other Broadcasters

Other unnamed broadcasters have previously been referred to by prosecutors in the wide-ranging investigation, which exploded on to the international stage in May 2015 when law-enforcement agents swept into a luxury hotel in Zurich and arrested more than half a dozen top FIFA officials.

An unnamed Miami sports marketing company that appeared in the indictment coinciding with the arrests turned out to be Media World, an affiliate of Spanish media giant Imagina Group. Later that year the FBI raided Media World's offices, and two executives pleaded guilty in the case. They have yet to be sentenced.

Another sports marketing company described in a superseding indictment as having paid bribes has longstanding ties to the U.S. entertainment company 21st Century Fox [NWSNA.UL], according to securities filings and other government documents.

Fox has not been accused of wrongdoing and has declined to comment on the case.

A media company could potentially be held criminally liable for bribery if it benefited from a wrongful payment and its employees had knowledge of or were willfully blind to the transaction, legal experts have said.

Latest Allegations

The allegations relating to the Latin American broadcaster surfaced in papers filed on Tuesday in Brooklyn as part of a hearing on a deferred prosecution agreement between U.S. authorities and another company, the Argentine sports marketer Torneos y Competencias.

Torneos agreed to pay more than $112 million in penalties for wire fraud conspiracy.

In the criminal charging documents filed against Torneos, prosecutors allege that a wholly-owned subsidiary - called TyC International - obtained the rights to broadcast future World Cup tournaments through a series of contracts with a major Latin American broadcaster's affiliate.

That affiliate went on to pay millions of dollars in bribe and kickback payments to a high-ranking FIFA official with "enormous influence" to secure the World Cup rights, prosecutors allege. Those rights were awarded long before the host countries were even picked for some of the tournaments.

After FIFA awarded the World Cup rights in 2018 to Mountrigi Management, the company licensed them to TyC international, FIFA documents show. Torneos declined to comment.

The FIFA corruption case is ongoing.

Editing by Amy Stevens and Edward Tobin

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