By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A little-known criminal case in Uruguay is hindering U.S. efforts to prosecute a top official charged in the wide-reaching investigation into corruption at world soccer body FIFA.
In an unexpected turn of events, Swiss authorities on Christmas Eve extradited a former FIFA vice president Eugenio Figueredo, arrested in Zurich in May at the request of U.S. prosecutors, to his native Uruguay instead of to the United States.
The ruling is a setback for the U.S. Department of Justice, who had requested Figueredo's extradition to New York to face a series of charges, including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. He is one of 41 people and entities charged in a U.S. investigation into $200 million in alleged bribes and kickback schemes tied to the marketing of major soccer tournaments and matches around the globe.
Figueredo's attorneys successfully argued to Swiss justice officials that an earlier 2013 Uruguayan case pending against him should take precedence over the U.S. case.
In making its decision, Switzerland's Federal Office of Justice concluded the U.S. and Uruguayan cases involved similar bribery allegations and also took into consideration Figueredo's advanced age and medical problems, according to a Dec. 18 order. Figueredo, 83, is suffering from neurological problems, his lawyer said, without giving further details. In Uruguay he is accused of fraud and money laundering, according to a preliminary order issued by a judge on Dec. 24. Those charges could carry jail sentences of more than two years.
After Figueredo is tried and punished in Uruguay he should then be extradited to the United States, according to the order by Judge Maria de los Santos. However, Figueredo's attorney said that such an extradition would be highly unlikely given his age and state of health.
In the United States he could face a maximum jail term of 20 years if convicted on the corruption-related charges. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, which is handling the FIFA corruption case, declined to comment.
Figueredo is now in jail in Uruguay after a brief hospitalization and has asked to be placed under house arrest. Swiss authorities arrested nine FIFA officials in two raids this year on the luxurious Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich. So far four have been extradited to the United States and four are still fighting extradition.
Figueredo is the only defendant so far who has been extradited to a country other than the United States.
In August, the United States blocked an attempt by Julio Rocha - currently detained in Zurich - to be extradited to his home country of Nicaragua.
"Everyone is going to learn from the Swiss decision and try to make their renewed requests fit very neatly with the logic that the Swiss found to support Figueredo going back to his country," said Michael Pasano, an attorney representing other defendants in the case.
The U.S. is also pressing for the extradition of other defendants still in their home countries in Latin America and contending with local rules that can prevent citizens from being sent abroad to face charges.
Figueredo's U.S. attorney David Torres-Siegrist said his client would not have gotten a fair trial in the United States because of the high-profile nature of the case.
The U.S. was demanding $15 million in bail - half in cash and half in properties - from Figueredo, a price tag he could not meet, said Torres-Siegrist.
"There are all sorts of advantages to being back in your own country, both political and legal," Pasano said.
Figueredo used to run Uruguayan soccer and was vice president of the South American soccer federation CONMEBOL from 1993 to 2013. He then briefly headed CONMEBOL for a year before stepping down to take up the role as FIFA vice president. Both the U.S. indictment and the case in Uruguay allege Figueredo took bribes from sports marketing executives in exchange for awarding the lucrative rights to regional soccer tournaments.
The 2013 criminal case in Uruguay started when seven soccer clubs and the national players union brought a complaint to the authorities accusing Figueredo and other CONMEBOL officials of corruption.
The teams decided not to pursue their complaint after being pressured by CONMEBOL's leadership, according to Uruguayan court documents, leaving the players union to pursue the case.
The Uruguayan complaint alleges Figueredo and CONMEBOL awarded marketing rights to T&T Sports Marketing Ltd, a firm named in the latest U.S. indictment, even though it offered significantly lower bids than competitors.
Then T&T would sell those rights to Fox Sports Network "at a much higher price, unlawfully benefiting" from the transaction," the order said.
Figueredo allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from T&T and other companies, more than his salary from CONMEBOL, in exchange for TV marketing rights.
An affiliate of 21st Century Fox owns 75 percent of T&T and Argentine firm Torneos y Competencias controls the rest. A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment on the case and Torneos y Competencias did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The backroom deals led to losses of $68 million between 2011 and 2014 for the teams and players, the court document said.
Figueredo made declarations to the Uruguayan court when he arrived in the country on Christmas Eve and admitted to some accusations while denying others, according to his lawyer.
Back in June, Uruguayan authorities seized nine of Figueredo's properties, five in the country's capital, Montevideo and four in the chic coastal resort of Punta del Este.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Martin Howell)