NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lawyer for a Costa Rican football official arrested in Switzerland last month on corruption charges, said there is no evidence his client took bribes or participated in a criminal enterprise, and called the prosecution “a legal absurdity.”
Eduardo Li, who served as the president of the Costa Rican football federation, is being detained in Switzerland along with six other football officials as part of a sweeping U.S. indictment alleging bribery, money laundering and wire fraud involving more than $150 million (£96 milliom).
The case, which has cast a huge shadow over world football’s governing body FIFA, has also led to the indictment of two former top FIFA officials and five executives from marketing or broadcasting companies. They are in various countries, including Italy, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and the U.S.
Shortly before his arrest, Li had been elected to serve on FIFA’s executive committee.
Li’s attorney in Costa Rica, Jose Miguel Villalobos, said his client is fighting extradition to the United States because he did not commit a crime. Villalobos, who is working with lawyers in Switzerland on Li’s defence, said his client is not in negotiations with U.S. prosecutors.
“He did not solicit any bribes or receive any bribes and it would be indecent for him to talk about things he doesn’t know,” Villalobos said.
Villalobos said U.S. prosecutors either misunderstand how Costa Rica football works, by incorrectly assuming the national football federation accounts are the same as Li’s personal accounts, or are unfairly trying to pressure his client to lie and implicate others.
A spokeswoman for Brooklyn, New York federal prosecutors handling the case, declined to comment on Villalobos’ remarks.
Villalobos’ comments may offer a preview of the defence that some of the leaders of world football ensnared in the FIFA bribery scandal could use against attempts to extradite them, and in any subsequent case if they do have to face a court in the U.S.
Li was named 2014 person of the year by Costa Rica’s La Nacion newspaper for his role in the national team’s unexpected run to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil, the first time it had got so far in the world’s top football tournament, which is held every four years.
After his U.S. indictment, though, Costa Rican authorities opened their own investigations into potential corruption and tax violations.
U.S. prosecutors say Li sought a “six-figure bribe” from the sports marketing firm Traffic USA in exchange for the media rights to qualifier matches in advance of the 2018 World Cup, and that Traffic USA agreed and paid the bribe.
Li then continued to seek additional bribe payments for other World Cup-related contracts, the indictment says.
Villalobos said that a series of payments from Traffic USA to the Costa Rica federation went to pay the salary of the country’s football coach and to expand sports facilities.
“None of this money reached Eduardo Li. Not a penny,” he said.
Villalobos also criticized U.S. prosecutors for relying on a 1970 law known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was originally intended for use against organised crime.
“There might be people in FIFA that made mistakes, but you cannot claim that FIFA in its entirety is a mafia organisation,” he said.
U.S. prosecutor Kelly Currie said at a May 27 news conference unveiling the charges that FIFA could be viewed as a victim of the defendants, who formed a “racketeering enterprise” to corrupt the organization’s legitimate purpose to promote football around the world.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Li controls an empire of transportation, customs, warehousing, logistics and other businesses.
The regional Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) dismissed Li and its top executive Jeffrey Webb, who was also indicted, the day after the U.S. charges were announced.
Formal U.S. extradition requests are due to be filed by July 3. A non-public hearing with the seven men and their lawyers would then be held in front of a Swiss justice official before the nation’s Justice Department decides on the requests. The department’s determination can be appealed in a Swiss court.
Switzerland has a treaty with the United States that calls for the extradition of people charged with offenses that are crimes in both countries, a requirement known as dual criminality.
“If it is not a crime in Switzerland, he cannot be extradited,” Villalobos said.
The Swiss Justice Department has already said, though, that dual criminality does exist because the alleged bribery would have distorted competition in violation of Switzerland’s Unfair Competition Act.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, Enrique Andres Pretel in San Jose and Katharina Bart in Zurich; Writing by David Ingram; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Martin Howell