ASUNCION, Paraguay — A judge in Paraguay approved the extradition of Nicolas Leoz, the former president of South America's soccer confederation, on Thursday. The 89-year-old Leoz is charged in a corruption scandal being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.
For decades, Leoz was practically untouchable despite corruption allegations. But he has been held under house arrest in the Paraguayan capital fighting the extradition order to the U.S., where he has been wanted since 2015 on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes from marketing companies in exchange for TV and marketing rights to soccer tournaments.
"The court has finally resolved that the formal request for the extradition order is validated by the treaty and laws, and the extradition of Mr. Leoz has been granted so he can face trial in the United States," Judge Humberto Otazu said about the decision, which can be appealed.
Leoz was president of CONMEBOL from 1986 to 2013, when he resigned after he acknowledged he received $130,000 in payments from a former marketing partner of FIFA. Amid the growing scandal, Leoz also quit as a member of FIFA's executive committee, citing health reasons. FIFA reprimanded Leoz but never penalized him.
The U.S. Justice Department has indicted more than 40 soccer and marketing officials, including Leoz, on charges of bribery, racketeering, and money laundering.
Leoz lobbied Paraguay's legislators in 1997 for a law making the headquarters of CONMEBOL exempt from legal intervention. He once bragged that only the Vatican enjoyed the same kind of "immunity and total privileges." After the FIFA scandal broke in 2015, Paraguay signed a law repealing the immunity that CONMEBOL's headquarters enjoyed for nearly two decades.
Once the immunity on the CONMEBOL headquarters was lifted, the building was raided by authorities, who seized thousands of documents that were sent to the U.S. Justice Department for its investigation.
A key government witness at the U.S. trial of three former South American soccer officials charged in the FIFA bribery scandal said on Thursday that for long, the CONMEBOL headquarters were like Leoz's personal "kingdom."
"There was hardly any difference from his personal banking account and CONMEBOL's account," former Argentine marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco said.
"Nicolas Leoz sometimes would confuse his personal finances with CONMEBOL's finances."
Asked by an attorney what he meant by this, Burzaco said: "I mean he would steal from CONMEBOL."
Leoz has said he is innocent, and his attorney said on Thursday his client will fight extradition.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Zuniga in New York contributed to this report.
Pedro Servin, The Associated Press