The story of a £2.8m tax liability (over)due for payment by Rangers Football Club ought to be a straightforward one. Either the club owes the money or it doesn’t. And it says it does. However, if Rangers FC does owe the money, and publicly admits as much, yet still does not pay it, there must be a problem with their ability to do so. And if Rangers FC are struggling, at a time of year when football clubs are at their cash-richest, to pay it, there must be a general – and serious – financial problem at the club. Either that, or there is a complex conspiracy between the Scottish media, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Glasgow and Strathkelvin Sheriffs’ Office, Glasgow-based law firm Levy & McCrae, the Court of Session in Edinburgh and Celtic-supporting financial bloggers – possibly with the backing of disaffected former Rangers directors – to discredit the football club and, in particular, its owner of four months, Motherwell-born venture capitalist Craig Whyte. Or, maybe, just maybe, the story is a mixture of ‘all of the above,’ as real life so often is.
When Whyte embarked on an early round of in-depth interviews as Rangers owner, he was already disturbed by the “intensity” of what Scotland on Sunday newspaper interviewer Tom English called “the scrutiny of his every move.” Whyte himself said: “I’ve read things in the newspaper before even I knew they were happening.” And his solution was for Rangers “to have a much more co-ordinated media strategy.” Whatever you think of Rangers’ “media strategy” in the face of recent intense scrutiny, it has certainly been “co-ordinated.” The club has been publicly pursued for the afore-mentioned £2.8m tax debt, with newspaper photographers ‘mysteriously’ on-hand to picture Scottish legal officers entering Ibrox on 10th August to instigate action to recover it. And, ever since, Rangers spokesmen have been wheeled out to claim “that certain individuals at HMRC have an anti-Rangers agenda,” that the tax authorities were being “unduly aggressive” and that it was “unthinkable that this would happen to any other business.”
A similar scenario emerged over the non-payment of £35,000 to Levy and McRae, who had represented Rangers in their case with Uefa over fans’ allegedly ‘sectarian’ singing at a Europa League tie in Eindhoven, for which the club was fined forty thousand euros in March. The law firm instigated legal proceedings to get their money, during which they found time to air “a real concern” about Rangers’ “solvency.” In the immediate aftermath of the issue attracting media attention, Rangers paid the bill, with a club spokesman referencing “ludicrous coverage over the last couple of days regarding the payment of a minor sum of money to a lawyer.” And then, as if to prove that bad things come in threes, there was the leak of a 14-page document drafted by legal counsel for former Rangers chief executive Martin Bain, setting out Bain’s case against Rangers for breach of contract, around the time of Bain’s messy departure from Ibrox in June.
The drafters of this document, Edinburgh law firm Balfour and Manson, also found considerable time to question Rangers’ finances, and their potential inability to pay the financial compensation sought by the former Rangers director. So the ubiquitous spokesman was on his rounds again, claiming that an “illegal leak of court papers indicates a whispering campaign by people determined to damage the club.” All of this comes against a turbulent backdrop for the West Glasgow outfit. Rather more headline-grabbing legal proceedings are on-going over a second tax liability which could be anything up to £49m. And Rangers have just emerged from a messy takeover saga, with a personally bitter aftermath.
As a result of all of this, just about every protagonist stands open to accusations of having an agenda to pursue. Whyte bought the (vast) majority shareholding of former supremo Sir David Murray in May, against the advice and wishes of leading Rangers directors and executives, who expressed consistent and very public “concerns” over Whyte at the time, regarding “the future cash requirements of the club,” and how they “would be met.” A number of these vestiges of the old regime were excised by a vengeful Whyte, who was more determined to rid his club of those turbulent directors than to follow standard procedures for doing it. So they wouldn’t balk at the opportunity to say “I told you so,” if Whyte failed to meet those requirements. HMRC have been owed £2.8m, and believe they have been owed many multiples of that figure, for over a decade, as both tax liabilities come from Rangers’ high-spending era around the turn of the century. So HMRC are hardly well-disposed towards the club.
Former CEO Bain believes he was sacked and further believes that Rangers owe him £1.3m as a result, with Levy and McRae representing Bain and believing they have had to faff around inordinately for the relatively piffling £35,000 the club has owed them since before the takeover. So they are hardly well-disposed towards the club either. Two websites have taken a particular and detailed interest in Rangers’ tax case and general financial affairs; one the imaginatively-entitled ‘rangerstaxcase.com,’ run by a self-confessed Celtic fan and the other written by “freelance author and blogger” Phil Mac Giolla Bhain – not the sort of name you would advisedly write in the guest book at Rangers Supporters Club bars. Their vested interest in Rangers’ failure is as clear the Scottish Premier League flag flying over Ibrox. Meanwhile, Judge Lord Hodge of the Court of Session in Edinburgh is “satisfied that there is a real and substantial risk” of Rangers’ “insolvency, if they were to lose the £40m tax case. No evidence has yet emerged of a Celtic shirt under the judge’s court coat or of any other reason why Rangers’ financial meltdown would melt his heart. But it’s early days yet for the good lord.
However, as the club have correctly stressed, speculation has heavily outweighed demonstrable reality in media coverage of Rangers’ finances since Whyte’s takeover. The complexity of the major tax liability lends itself to under-informed speculation, to which I am not about to add. Companies House records don’t appear to tell the story of a billionaire and Whyte’s business biography in a June circular to shareholders was so vague it almost wasn’t there, adding fuel to the fire of those who dismiss him as a “thousandaire.” In April, Private Eye magazine detailed Whyte’s history of late filing of accounts and well-timed resignations from directorships of failed companies, describing him as “a man of mystery… to whom others seem keen to confer billionaire status.” And rangerstaxcase.com highlighted “Hay McKerron (Whyte’s PR firm)” as among those “others,” dismissing Whyte’s claims of “‘off the scale’ wealth” as “obvious fictions.”
Whyte has been as bullish as his indeterminate number of spokesmen in rubbishing all the speculation, calculating that “99%” of what rangerstaxcase.com “are saying is crap.” Yet the website considers this comment to be a source of pride, with the quote headlining its pages, and daring Whyte to “comment on the 1% truth and “pick examples” of the “99% crap” as it “should be easy.” Bloggers who go into the intense detail displayed on rangerstaxcase.com have a history of being rather more than 1% right, the best example of which being the blog written by “Fair Comment” during the summer of 2009 which second-guessed the actions of one-time Portsmouth owner Sulaiman Al-Fahim with un-nerving and damning accuracy. Of course, however well-informed the magazine and website speculation is, it remains speculation. And even the ‘leaked’ court papers, which contain plenty of their own intense detail of Rangers’ financial difficulties, are just a draft of a prosecution case and are, by very definition, just one side of the story.
However, the little indisputable information which exists about Rangers, in relation to tax debts and employment claims, fails to put the club in a good light. Whatever the bluster about underhand co-operation between tax authorities and the media, Rangers owe those authorities £2.8m, “which they are willing to pay” (BBC Football website, 10th August). The money “goes back 12 years,” according to a club spokesman, so it is evidently overdue. And despite a club spokesman claiming “we have reached an outline agreement with HMRC” (BBC Football…10th August, as above), the money remains largely unpaid. A Scottish Sun newspaper article – attached to, and forming the basis of certain claims within, the ‘leaked’ legal papers – suggests embarrassingly transparently that Bain was pushed out of his Rangers executive position before he could jump. “Martin Bain is currently suspended…and will NOT return to the club” reported the Scottish Sun on 18th June. “Martin Bain has resigned as a director and employee of the company with immediate effect,” Rangers told the London Stock Exchange, six days later.
Even if you subscribe to the club spokesman’s view that Levy and McRae’s use of the courts to get their “minor sum of money” was “extraordinary,” (and that media coverage was “ludicrous”), for the spokesman to label the action “un-necessary” seems demonstrably wrong. The money, due throughout Whyte’s Ibrox tenure, was only paid subsequent to that action. The dance goes on, as Judge Lord Hodge of the Edinburgh Court of Session ordered Rangers to set aside £480,000 to cover possible damages in the Bain case, as losing the major tax case would place the club at “real and substantial risk of insolvency,” thereby placing a ‘real and substantial risk’ that Bain wouldn’t get compensated even if he did win the case Rangers’ spokesman, in trademark outlandish phraseology, declared it “truly astonishing” that Bain should have “taken this action when he claims to have had Rangers’ best interests at heart.” Why Bain should still have “Rangers’ best interests at heart” when they are no longer paying him, and he thinks they are trying to diddle him out of one-and-a-third million quid, isn’t explained.
And it appears a little odd that Rangers are “vigorously appealing the decision,” when, in the same statement, their spokesman assured everyone that “all that has happened today is a sum of money has been set aside if the club were to lose the (Bain) case.” Whyte has also joined in the counter-attack, claiming that “the law courts have been used in recent days to suggest that the club is on the brink of insolvency, it is not” and declaring such actions “reprehensible.” This should mean that the tax office will soon get their £2.8m. After all, Rangers either owes the money, or it doesn’t…and it says it does. So if, as Whyte says, “the club is trading normally and has a strong balance sheet,” there seems no reason why Rangers don’t pay up. “At Ibrox, it is business as usual,” Whyte also declared this week. And, maybe, that’s the problem.
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