Watford: ‘Bankrupt Baz’ Gets Banned
Of all the chancers to take their chance with English club football in recent years, Laurence Bassini/Bazini may even have been the chanciest of the lot. Championship high-flyers Watford are currently living through altogether different controversies, as their loan-heavy team challenges for a Premier League place, thanks more than most else to their status as a ‘nursery’ side of sorts for Serie A club Udinese. But the sins of Watford’s recent past nearly came back to haunt them this week, as the true nature of Bassini’s club ownership was exposed by the publication of the Football League’s Football Disciplinary Committee (FDC) “determinations.”
“Bankrupt Baz”, as he is referenced in his – possibly not self-penned – Wikipedia profile, was once a “client” of the execrable Keith Harris’s investment bank Seymour Pierce (and who here is surprised at Harris’s link to this grubby tale?). And he was offered ownership of Blackburn Rovers in 2010, which was a lucky escape for Blackb…ah… Last month Bassini was found guilty of “misconduct” and “banned from owning or holding any position of authority in any football club for three years” by the FDC investigating “two financial transactions in 2011 which occurred during (his) tenure as owner and director” of Watford. Watford also breached three League regulations but the FDC deemed a “registration embargo” to be “a just and proportionate penalty,” rather than the points deduction many around the club feared. Indeed, the FDC considered the embargo a tongue-twistingly “sufficiently serious sanction” because of “the club’s… prospects of… promotion to the Premier League.” So, “phew” all round.
Instead, the media have highlighted Bassini’s ban and the findings against the “Stanmore businessman” who became Watford owner in a blaze of financial suspicion in 2011. Before he even formally took over, Bassini was ‘outed’ as bankrupted North London businessman Lawrence Bazini. Bazini/Bassini thought this “disguise” would divert attention from his business past. But with thinking like that, little wonder he went bust. Suspicions over Bassini’s source of funding for the financially-complex takeover and operating of the loss-making club were hardly allayed by his insistence that they were a “private matter.” Nor did he receive any reputational boost from his apparent allergy to fans’ forums, as he missed two such opportunities to explain himself to Watford fans, due to “illness.” His setpiece “Q&A sessions” with the local Watford Observer newspaper and equally non-spontaneous interviews with WO ‘Deputy Sports Editor’ Frank Smith were masterclasses in revealing nothing. And they contained industrial-strength incongruity, which was finally exposed by the FDC’s determinations.
These determinations are couched in legalese of below-average impenetrability. And there is humour in their descriptions of Bassini’s more, ahem, ‘unlikely’ evidence, and that of Angelo Barrea described by the WO last year as his “business associate.” Bassini’s misconduct centred on “forward-funding”, a term giving unwarranted respectability to him spending transfer-fee instalments Watford did not yet have, using them to help keep the numerous spending promises he made in order to persuade Watford fans to “give him a chance” despite his dreadful, alias-inducing recent past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bassini neglected to mention this to fellow-directors. Watford had used “forward-funding” before, as it is only breaches League regulations if it isn’t “preceded by the approval of the League.” But Bassini neglected to mention this to the League too.
The FDC said “forward-funding” regulations were designed to mitigate against undue “third-party influence in football clubs through investment,” and that “an assignment of a club’s entitlement to a transfer fee” could only be to “a financial institution (regulated by the Financial Services Authority), where such a possibility could not arise” (assuming that the FSA, called the “Fundamentally Supine Authority” by Private Eye, was being effective). Bassini’s “financial institution” could have been regulated by the Food Standards Agency, for all its legitimacy. In July 2011, Watford transferred “Daniel Graham” to Swansea for £3.5m – a fee Bassini boasted about contemporaneously (“I argued and argued…and managed to get £3.5m,” he told the WO, referring to a clause in Graham’s Watford contract “where he would have gone for anything over £2m”).
The final £1m was due in two £500k tranches in early 2012. In August 2011, Bassini was advised “to seek forward-funding”, secured against these amounts from a Surrey-based company called “LNOC Ltd” which, the FDC noted darkly, “had not returned any accounts to Companies House” before the hearing began. It was “not a financial institution” as defined in the relevant League regulations, “and nor did it purport to be.” The League were not informed, and the “sole involvement…by any other (club) official” was “the endorsement over to LNOC” by Watford’s “company secretary Mr Peter Wastall.” Wastall told the FDC that “he had some recollection of being asked by Mr Bassini to sign documents” but “he did not read them and took them on trust.” The FDC thought this “a failure to grasp the role and obligations of a company secretary.” Their initial reaction possibly rhymed with “clucking bell.”
While at Watford, Bassini “relied heavily upon a solicitor named Angelo Barrea… described by Bassini as a ‘consultant’ to the club.” Barrea had “no prior experience in football”, had “no formal role in the club” and “did not regard himself as providing legal advice” to it. Yet “he attended many of the club’s board meetings, even when Bassini did not. His “presence did not appear to have been challenged.” The FDC concluded, correctly: “he is a highly relevant figure in subsequent events.” And “he was made a signatory to the club’s bank account and, on his own admission, had stepped into the role of chief executive, although he was never a paid employee of the club.” Clucking bell. Again. “Soon after” Bassini bought Watford, he and Barrea “began exploring means of improving cash-flow in the club,” at a time when Bassini insisted to all that he was funding Watford from his “personal wealth.”
One of these “means” was contact with “Good for Sport” (a name tinged with irony, given subsequent events), a firm boasting of “its ability to facilitate funding for sporting organisations.” In that role, its “sole directors…Nigel Weiss and Mark Wollner” introduced LNOC to Bassini. On the promise of receiving £1m when Swansea paid their 2012 tranches of the Graham transfer fee, LNOC paid out £951,041 on September 21st. However, the FDC said the money “did not pass into the club’s bank account but was paid to another bank account notified to them” which they “understood” to be “the account of Bassini’s holding company, Watford FC Ltd,” through which Bassini had initially bought the club. “Whatever the reason for using that account,” the FDC noted, possibly sarcastically, “no funds arrived in the club account, which might have alerted the financial staff or other directors to the LNOC agreement.” Handy, eh? Bassini’s little secret couldn’t be kept secret, though.
Swansea were not yet that widely-renowned for financial sense and propriety. But they were still financially sensible and proper. So Bassini’s cover was blown when Weiss asked Swansea to “request the Premier League or the Football League to pay (Watford’s money) direct to LNOC,” – transfer payments were routinely “routed through the Premier League and Football League Transfer Accounts. Swansea forwarded the message to the Premier League, who passed it on to the Football League, who passed it on to the club, asking them (not, crucially, Bassini, or the intermittently-illiterate Wastall) “to whom the £500k due in January 2012 should be paid, Watford or LNOC.” Ooops! Yet however foolish this predictable exposure made Bassini look, that was as nothing compared to his performance in front of the FDC. Their determination is littered with legalistic euphemism – unerringly polite phrases which fail, and make no obvious attempt, to hide their near-contempt for Bassini and Barrea.
Bassini told them he had “informed several individual directors” of his “forward-funding arrangements.” However, the FDC said “there is no indication in the board minutes that he took the opportunity to remind them of that information,” and added: “Barrea’s role remains opaque, even after his evidence…he does not seem to have provided any clearly identifiable experience.” The FDC were contemptuous of Bassini and Barrea’s attempts to deny seeing a key e-mail from Weiss, dated 20th September 2011. This referenced Bassini “entering into a forward-funding arrangement” by which LNOC paid £1,660,595 into the Watford FC Ltd account and would receive £1.8m in early 2012 from central League funding. Bassini failed to inform the League, despite the e-mail saying that “the League had a serious problem with the proposed arrangement” and making the consequences of non-disclosure clear.
Bassini and Barrea were e-mailed at their club address. Bassini claimed he “did not use his club address,” so “did not see the e-mail and was not aware of it.” Barrea, however, “did not make the same claim and appeared to use his club address regularly.” And the FDC concluded, fresh out of euphemisms, that “neither Bassini nor Barrea told the truth” about the e-mail. “We do not accept that (Bassini) would not have made himself aware of relevant incoming correspondence, or that Barrea… would not have drawn it to his attention.” “If that were not sufficient,” the FDC sighed, after more of Bassini’s alternative realities, “our view is re-inforced by (his) assertion…that he informed (director) Mr Fransen about the forward-funding by phone at Mr Fransen’s home in Switzerland.” And in a paragraph dripping with sarcasm, they continued: “Barrea, who had apparently not been present when that evidence emerged, was to say…that he had been present when Mr Fransen was told at a football match ‘around a table.’ This contradiction, asserted with certainty, left us with the very clear impression that Barrea was prepared to say whatever he thought would assist Bassini, without concern for the truth.” The FDC stopped short of suggesting that maybe the ‘table’ had been Swiss, but possibly only just.
They considered Bassini’s (mis)conduct “underhand and unworthy,” even using the “L-word” not always seen in such carefully-drafted opinion, citing some Bassini evidence as “a repeat of the lie he told to his colleagues.” Indeed, the determinations contradicted many of Bassini’s claims while he owned Watford. Comparing Bassini’s evidence to the FDC with his contemporaneous newspaper cross-examinations and interviews shows that certain activities, particularly “stadium developments,” were funded as much from player/asset sales and LNOC’s millions as any “personal wealth” he supposedly accrued in the four years since he was Lawrence Bazini… and bankrupt. Many Watford fans have questioned why Bassini’s bar from football office is three years rather than forever-and-ever. But the FDC’s remit covered just two Bassini transactions. Who knows what sanction awaits, if even half the stories still emerging about his football “misconduct” are subjected to investigation.
The full tales of Bassini’s dealings with LNOC, the “Red and Yellow Lion” pub near the ground and with previous controversial Watford owners the Russo Brothers are still untold. For instance, Bassini told the FDC that he “subsequently held 50% of (Watford’s) shares on behalf of Valley Green Salads Unlimited,” the Russo-owned company which loaned Watford money during previous financial turmoil. Yet In January 2012, he was “happy to dispel” rumours he was “a front man for the Russo Brothers,” stating: “There’s no front man. Just me. I’m not acting for anyone else.” Such glaring anomalies, whatever the truth, don’t augur well for Bassini. However, if football’s officials, administrators and fans learn their lessons from the FDC determinations, Bassini’s ban should effectively be life, as no-one should give this chanciest chancer the remotest chance in football, ever again.
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