Less than six months after a federal jury convicted a former Fox employee and an Argentine sports marketing company of participating in a scheme to pay bribes in exchange for lucrative soccer broadcasting contracts, a judge in Brooklyn vacated the convictions on Friday.
In a 55-page ruling, the judge, Pamela K. Chen, concluded that the federal wire fraud statute under which the defendants had been convicted did not apply to their actions.
In a seven-week trial that ended in March, prosecutors alleged that Hernán López, who holds dual American and Argentine citizenship and who until 2016 worked for a unit of what was then known as 21st Century Fox, had been part of a scheme to make millions of dollars in secret annual payments to the presidents of national soccer federations in order to secure the rights to two widely viewed South American soccer tournaments.
Mr. Lopez — who prosecutors also said had leveraged loyalty he garnered through bribes to help Fox beat out ESPN in its bid for the U.S. broadcasting rights for the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups — was convicted on one count of money laundering conspiracy and one count of wire fraud conspiracy. He faced up to 40 years in prison.
Prosecutors said that Mr. López’s co-defendant, the sports marketing company Full Play Group, had paid bribes for the rights to multiple World Cup qualifiers, exhibition matches and tournaments. Full Play was convicted on six fraud and money laundering counts and could have faced stiff financial penalties.
A key factor in Judge Chen’s decision, handed down late Friday, was the scope of a law under which the defendants had been charged, known as the honest services wire fraud statute.
Judge Chen cited a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, in which the justices threw out two fraud convictions stemming from public corruption prosecutions during Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration in New York. In one of the cases, Percoco v. United States, the justices considered whether a former aide to Mr. Cuomo could be prosecuted under a federal law that makes it a crime to deprive the government of “honest services” for conduct that took place after he left his government role.
In light of that decision, and the absence of precedent applying that law to bribery of foreign employees of foreign nongovernment employers, Judge Chen wrote in her ruling that she was compelled to “find that the honest services wire fraud statute does not encompass foreign commercial bribery as charged against defendants.”
“We are obviously pleased with Judge Chen’s thorough and correct decision,” John Gleeson, a lawyer for Mr. López, said in a statement on Saturday.
Lawyers for Full Play wrote in a statement on Saturday that their client “greatly appreciates the court’s complete vindication.”
The case in Brooklyn was one of many spawned by a yearslong corruption investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into international soccer officials, which has led to more than two dozen convictions and over $100 million in forfeitures.
Beyond the immediate acquittals of Mr. López and Full Play, the ruling could have significant implications for other defendants in the sprawling case. Two South American soccer officials were convicted after the first trial, in 2017, and could now seek acquittals, and at least four other defendants who have evaded extradition, including the Argentine owners of Full Play, could see the charges against them dropped. So far, the court has not spoken about those issues.
John Marzulli, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, said on Saturday that the prosecutor’s office was reviewing the decision.