July 10, 2015 / 5:08 AM / 2 years ago

Exclusive: Miami company described in U.S. soccer case as agreeing to pay bribe - sources

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Miami-based affiliate of Spanish media giant Imagina group is one of the unidentified sports marketing companies alleged in a U.S. indictment to have agreed to pay a bribe in a global soccer corruption scandal, sources told Reuters.

The company is Media World, a subsidiary of Imagina US, according to two sources familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. Imagina US is a subsidiary of the Barcelona-based Imagina group.

The indictment does not say that the company - identified only as "Sports Marketing Company C" - paid a bribe, but says it had agreed to do so and was looking for a way to make the payment to a high-ranking soccer official in the Americas.  

Media World, which buys and sells the media rights to soccer leagues and has operated TV channels aimed at the U.S. Hispanic market, has not been charged with wrongdoing.

In U.S. court proceedings, prosecutors will sometimes describe potential wrongdoing by people or entities even if they are not ready to charge them with a crime. Sometimes, the person or corporation is never charged or even named by prosecutors.

A spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, declined to comment.  

On May 27, U.S. prosecutors detailed more than $150 million in alleged bribes paid over more than two decades, leading to the arrest of some top soccer and marketing executives and pitching soccer's governing body FIFA into crisis.

The indictment says that "Sports Marketing Company C" agreed with Traffic USA, a sports marketing firm named in the indictment, to split equally a $3 million bribe to Jeffrey Webb, at the time the head of the regional soccer federation CONCACAF.

The bribe was negotiated in exchange for allowing the companies to jointly exploit the media and marketing rights to the 2018 and 2022 Caribbean Football Union's World Cup qualifier matches, the court document says.

U.S. prosecutors have charged Webb with racketeering, wire fraud and conspiracy to launder money. A lawyer for Webb, who was arrested and is being held in Switzerland, declined to comment.

The indictment says that the decision to pay the $1.5 million bribe was made on Media World's behalf by "a senior executive" of the European parent of "Sports Marketing Company C."

Reuters could not confirm the identity of that executive, who was labeled in the indictment as "co-conspirator" number 20 among 25 unnamed "co-conspirators," alongside nine current and former FIFA officials and five sports marketing businessmen who were charged.

Spain's Imagina said it has no evidence that "Sports Marketing Company C" refers to any company in its group or that any of their executives are described as co-conspirators in the indictment. They also said they had not received any communication, official or otherwise, that any company in the group is being investigated.

The Spanish firm is a global player that owns the rights to the top division of the Spanish soccer league, home to stars such as Argentina's Lionel Messi, and produces television shows and movies.

Media World merged with TV production company Promofilm to form Imagina US in 2006, according to a company website. Roger Huguet, the chief executive of Imagina US, did not respond to requests for comment.

Traffic paid its $1.5 million share to Webb, including $500,000 to build a pool at Webb's house in the U.S. state of Georgia in 2012, according to the indictment. But "Sports Marketing Company C" kept delaying making a payment because it was searching for "a way that would conceal its true nature," the indictment says.

    

    OTHER UNNAMED COMPANIES

    Broadcasting and marketing rights are a source of enormous wealth for soccer. The U.S. indictment alleges that sports marketing firms and corrupt soccer officials ran an international criminal enterprise, working hand-in-hand to personally profit from the game. Prosecutors say the firms sometimes work collaboratively and at other times fiercely compete for the lucrative contracts.

    Jose Hawilla, the founder of the Brazilian company Traffic, secretly pleaded guilty last December to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice, according to the Department of Justice. Hawilla also agreed to forfeit more than $151 million. His sentencing is set for September, according to court records.

Aaron Davidson, president of the company's U.S. subsidiary Traffic Sports USA Inc, was charged with racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering and is under house arrest after posting a $5 million bond.

    Two other sports marketing firms identified in the indictment as Sports Marketing Company A and Sports Marketing Company B are described as paying annual bribes but, like Media World, not charged with crimes. The two firms previously have been identified in media reports as Rio de Janeiro-based Klefer and New Jersey-based International Soccer Marketing.

    A lawyer for Kleber Leite, a founder and senior executive of Klefer, said the company's offices had been raided and its accounts frozen due to a U.S. investigation. The lawyer said his client did not have access to the confidential court documents laying out the case. Leite has denied any part in the alleged corruption.

ISM could not be reached for comment.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg and David Ingram in New York; Additional reporting by Brad Haynes in Sao Paulo; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Stuart Grudgings

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