NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. judge presiding over the corruption cases of indicted soccer officials may not have been able to pronounce the name of soccer's world governing body, FIFA, during a secret hearing in 2013, but he does know how to oversee a proceeding that involves organized crime.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie in Brooklyn, New York, has spent some of his nearly three decades on the bench handling mobster trials. A defendant was found murdered in one of the cases, and in another the head of a crime family walked the streets in a bathrobe as he faked a mental illness to try to avoid standing trial.
Now, Dearie, who turned 71 on Thursday, is responsible for presiding over the cases of nine current and former FIFA officials and five corporate sports executives who are accused of participating in a decades-long criminal enterprise that involved more than $150 million in bribes. With U.S. prosecutors' investigation far from over the number of defendants could increase.
The start of any trials may be far off, because only one of the 14 defendants is known to be in the United States. The rest are either missing or awaiting possible extradition proceedings.
But if the defendants do end up in Dearie's court, he will set the pace of the case and likely be asked to rule on key points such as the admissibility of evidence.
Like many Americans, Dearie was, at least up until about 18 months ago, not familiar with all the intricacies of world soccer. In November 2013, when Chuck Blazer, who had been a top U.S. soccer official for many years, appeared before Dearie to plead guilty in a secret agreement with prosecutors, the judge struggled with the pronunciation of soccer's world governing body.
"I don't know how you pronounce it, FIFA," Dearie acknowledged, according to a transcript unsealed this week. (It is pronounced fee-fa)
He is, though, expected to easily overcome any such lack of familiarity.
"Nothing about the FIFA case is likely to daunt him, given some of the cases he’s already dealt with," said Steve Gold, a former clerk to Dearie and now a Rutgers University law professor.
Dearie also displayed a dry wit in the Blazer hearing. He quizzed Blazer on the legal definition of conspiracy and gave him only a "B-Plus" grade.
The judge then explained that a conspiracy is an agreement to do something the law forbids. He gave an example: "You and I were buddies on the street and we agreed to sell marijuana and we meant it. We were going to go into the marijuana business. We committed the crime of conspiracy."
In interviews with Reuters, lawyers who have appeared in Dearie's courtroom described him as widely respected, fair and calm. "He rarely loses his temper," said New York defense lawyer William Stampur, who has had several cases before Dearie.
Dearie, through a member of his staff, declined an interview request on Friday.
He is one of 11 judges who also serve on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret tribunal in Washington that rules on certain spying matters, and he has shown in court that he is willing to protect government secrets.
In a trial this year of an al Qaeda suspect, British MI5 officers who were to be prosecution witnesses wanted to maintain their cover, so Dearie allowed them to testify wearing wigs and makeup and ordered media courtroom artists to draw them with only "blank faces" and "generic hair."
Like many judges in the United States, Dearie was a prosecutor first. As the U.S. attorney, or chief federal prosecutor, in Brooklyn from 1982 to 1986, he targeted local political corruption.
In 1982, Dearie recommended that Charles Schumer, then a young Congressman, be indicted for allegedly using state government staff to work on a political campaign, according to a 1983 story in the Washington Post. The Justice Department declined to prosecute and Senator Schumer is now one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Schumer's office did not respond to a request for comment about Dearie on Friday.
Dearie's past as a prosecutor does not detract from his ability to be fair, said Richard Levitt, who has represented criminal defendants in Dearie's courtroom.
Dearie in 2009 sentenced a Liberian woman to probation after she pleaded guilty to smuggling baboon, green monkey and warthog meat into the United States. Prosecutors and primate scholar Jane Goodall had urged a tough sentence, but the judge cited the woman's mental illness in declining to send her to prison.
During the hearing with the wheelchair-bound Blazer, Dearie showed some sympathy for a man who was not only front and center of a global corruption scandal but also had severe health problems, wishing him "good luck" with various illnesses, including rectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.
Gold recalled how the judge treated a crowd of migrant farm workers who came by bus to Brooklyn for a court hearing. Rather than listen only to the lawyers in the lawsuit, Dearie allowed the workers to speak in court if they wished.
"He is extremely sensitive to the real lives that are at stake," Gold said.
Reporting by David Ingram and; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Martin Howell