Football & The Law: Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That

by | Nov 11, 2017

America’s late-night “genuine fake news” programme “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” has a segment called “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” speed-covering the swarm of news items part-caused by “Donald Trump did WHAT?” tales.

“Ain’t nobody” had full time for the football legal stories which have taken significant turns this week. There I was, researching repugnant Fifa ex-Vice-President Jack Warner’s legal attempts to escape justice for his repugnant criminality (sod “allegedly,” he couldn’t lie in bed straight, that man) when, suddenly…

Blackpool, the “Paradise Papers,” Fifa and the “Paradise Papers” again. Fascinating revelations, affirming football peoples’ flaky relationship with legal propriety. So many court judgments to read. I’ll soon be fluent in legalese.

Warner’s trudge through Trinidad’s UK-based justice system seems almost workaday, since the Oyston family’s gob-smacking machinations at Blackpool and the “mob trial” of Fifa chiefs. While the Paradise Papers expose, for the umpteenth time, the inadequacies of English club ownership regulation and (sorry, folks) my regular soap-box topic, Scottish football media.

I’ll deal with the repugnant Warner’s increasingly desperate, on-going attempts to avoid justice in a full article (“hooray,” no-one cried). And the Oyston family values are covered by Gavin Saxton’s terrific piece elsewhere on-site… saving you all the bother of reading my jaundiced take on the affair… though I will say that it would be lovely if Latvian former investor Valeri Belokon were to donate significant tranches of his £31.77m award to Blackpool.

That thought, however, comes more from the strength of the painkillers I’m on than realistic appraisal of Belokon’s mentality. Which makes the Oyston’s indisputable status as the bad guys here, alongside their formal status as “fit-and-proper” football club owners, all-the-grimmer.

Meanwhile…the Paradise Papers, a sequel to 2015’s Panama Papers, though more “Godfather 2” than “Beverley Hills Cop 2” in quality.

German media currently trailblaze in football politics/finance leaks, to which Fifa president Gianni Infantino can bitterly testify. And just as with the Panama Papers, the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper obtained leaked documents revealing dodgy financial/tax dealings of the already-rich. And they shared them, 13.4m all-told, via the “International Consortium of Investigative Journalists” (ICIJ) with various media outlets worldwide.

These outlets include the BBC, the Guardian, Private Eye (next week’s issue should be fun) and the “failing” New York Times (Trump will be SOOO pleased). Journalists have been nosing through the paperwork for six months. And the fruits of that work have emerged this week.

The headline football story concerns Everton FC’s ownership and financial structures, which have attracted considerable attention in recent years anyway. Plenty from journalists who like typing “opaque.” But less from the FA, it may not surprise you to hear. At an October 2016 parliamentary select committee hearing, Everton fan and Labour MP Chris Matheson asked “straight-shooter” FA chairman Greg Clarke if he knew “who or what” were “Vibrac” and “BCR Sports,” companies who had “provided finance” to five major English clubs, including Everton. Clarke shot straight back: “No.”

The Paradise Papers revealed how the close business relationship between billionaires Alisher Usmanov and Farhad Moshiri has potentially circumvented English Premier League (EPL) ownership rules. The two became minority Arsenal shareholders in 2007. And Usmanov used Isle-of-Man legal services firm Appleby, the papers’ main source, to arrange this deal and administer his subsequent gradually increasing Arsenal stake.

In March 2016, Moshiri bought 49.9% of Everton. This was part-funded by selling his Arsenal stake to Usmanov, a transaction nominally compliant with EPL rules barring ownership of 10%+ stakes in more than one club. Appleby were again involved. And the EPL were satisfied that Usmanov had no interest in Moshiri’s near-half of Everton, even when Usmanov’s company USM became a major sponsor (precise amount undisclosed, natch) of Everton’s Finch Farm training ground in January.

However, the Paradise Papers have re-aroused journalistic suspicions that the billionaires’ football transactions are too linked for EPL rules. Leaked documents suggest that even Appleby “found some confusion,” on this issue, as David Conn wonderfully euphemised in Monday’s Guardian.

Fan representatives are, (yet) again, calling for EPL regulations to be tightened to prevent what Football Supporters Federation chair Malcolm Clarke called “close business associates or partners owning different clubs which have to play each other.” A topical issue, this. Everton’s 5-2 collapse at home to Arsenal last month might have looked suspiciously pre-planned… were it not fot the fact that Everton have been playing like that every week, of late.

Meanwhile…Fifa. On Monday, the trials began of the three Fifa officials among the US Department of Justice’s famous May 2015 indictees who pleaded “not guilty” to all kinds of bribery and corruption: Paraguayan ex-president of appropriately-named South American federation CONmebol, Juan Angel Napout. Ex-Brazilian federation (CBF) chief Jose Maria Marin, not the only CBF chief so scandalised. And ex-Peruvian federation boss Manuel Burga.

These hearings, in New York’s Eastern District court in Brooklyn, threaten to add damning details of Fifa’s scandalous financing, a threat chillingly recognised by some of those threatened. The label “mob trial” has already been attached to these proceedings. Partly because Fifa has been portrayed by its harshest critics as an organised crime operation. But, more tangibly, because of federal prosecutors’ request for extensive jury protection, including anonymity.

In September, prosecutors cited “several” attempts to “obstruct justice and intimidate witnesses” and the potential hazards associated with “the extensive media coverage of this case, which is sure to intensify leading up to and during trial.” They sought security arrangements for jurors, including transportation to the hearings, from a secret location, by United States Marshals.

Marin took especial exception to these requests, citing the “extraordinary prejudice to the defendants which attaches to such measures” and arguing that “they should be rarely employed and only where the government can demonstrate a real need to protect the jury.” He didn’t think anything “provided by the (prosecutors) even approaches an adequate showing.”

District Judge Pamela Chen clearly disagreed, granting the request for jurors’ anonymity and the US marshal escort service on October 20th. Only one paragraph of her judgment and reasoning was published. But it was explosive enough, as she granted a further prosecution request to use evidence from witnesses who claimed they were asked to instigate a cover-up.

“These acts of obstruction are really no different than defendants’ alleged acts of bribery, wire fraud, and money laundering,” Chen said. “They all involve non-violent acts of dishonesty, deceit, and concealment. The fact that they were allegedly directed at a different audience, i.e., law enforcement, does not make them any more serious or prejudicial,”

And an even more startling report emerged on Tuesday, from experienced investigative journalist Declan Hill (author of the 2010 book “The Fix: Soccer and Organised Crime”). He offered an all-too-plausible explanation for the prosecution’s concerns, reporting their claims that one of the accused “has issued credible ‘death threats’ against a key witness” and “said that he has had a ‘prosecution witness killed’ in a previous trial.”

While “a witness was, allegedly, kidnapped by associates of the accused presumably as a way of making sure they gave the ‘right evidence.’” Hill added that this “moves the seriousness of the trial from simply a group of sports officials allegedly defrauding commercial aspects of the world’s game into a serious organized crime matter.”

The jury selection process began on Monday, with opening statements currently scheduled for November 13th. The wheels of Fifa justice may yet be clogged up further between now and then. You’d never bet against that. And whenever these trials start, the fun will REALLY start.

Meanwhile, the Paradise Papers, part two. Apparently, “Scotland’s Paradise Papers” is a thing…and Tuesday’s BBC Scotland documentary (24 hours after the BBC Panorama doc “Offshore Secrets of the Rich Exposed”). It was fronted by excellent investigative journalist Mark Daly. And a big deal was made of Daly’s smallest revelation, in financial terms. See if you can guess why.

Between 2007 and 2015, billionaire twirly-moustachioed Irish businessman Dermot Desmond owned unimaginatively-named executive jet company, Execujet. The Paradise Papers reveal that in 2012, Execujet executives asked Appleby to form a company, Execujet (IOM) Limited and “suggest Execujet may have avoided up to £1m in Swiss taxes over three years.”

The tax dodgers in Daly’s doc included Aberdeen-based oil firm Ithaca Energy, “global private equity giant” Blackstone and cast members from…BBC Scotland-filmed “comedy” Mrs Brown’s Boys. Yet Scotland’s Herald newspaper’s front-page headline on Tuesday was “Celtic billionaire’s jet firm ‘used haven to avoid tax bill’.”

Of course, the name “Celtic” grabs headlines. There is greater public interest in a “Celtic Tycoon,” whatever that is, although other shenanigans were more “in the public interest,” which, trainee journalists are told very early on, is another matter entirely.

However, Desmond is Irish, while Execujet are Swiss-based. The story simply isn’t Scottish news without Celtic being involved. And Celtic are NOT involved. AT ALL. Yet BBC Scotland’s business editor Douglas Fraser tweeted that the Paradise Papers “reached Celtic.” Only after widespread social media “advice” on its potential actionability was the tweet deleted.

It reeks, therefore, of another feeble attempt to construct a “Celtic Tax Case” to offset the infamous “Rangers Tax Case” and distract from the current Rangers’ over-reliance on “soft” loans for survival, an under-reported issue anyway, let alone relative to the Desmond headlines. Yet hypocrisy abounded on all “sides.”

Some fans suggested Execujet’s dodged tax helped fund Desmond’s reported expenditure on striker Robbie Keane’s salary in 2010, which was possible… if Execujet’s fleet included a f****** Tardis. Journalist Graham Spiers donned his sarky boots, referencing “many a zealous Rangers fan…with a sudden moral revulsion for tax dodging.”

While too many Celtic fans over-zealously excused Desmond, while attacking Daly for supposed bias, despite his past exposure of old Rangers’ on-and-offshore shenanigans. As journalist Angela Haggerty tweeted, correctly: “Any Celtic fan who holds dear the founding values of the club should be deeply concerned about (his) business practices.”

Desmond was naturally irritated when confronted by Daly outside Celtic Park. Such “ambushes” are irritants by design, with no interrogative value. But if Desmond carefully considered his written response to Daly, it didn’t show. “Are you a Rangers supporter?” it began. Pathetic.

But BBC Scotland’s sports department exposed their double-standards, covering the Desmond story, despite it not BEING a sport story. And they cited “legal issues” when ignoring a Tax Justice Network (TJN) report into allegations, also from leaked documents, concerning Scottish FA dealings with Rangers before pompously claiming it wasn’t “worthy of discussion.” The TJN have been the major media source for comment on the Paradise Papers.

Despite Desmond’s famed litigiousness, there were no “legal issues” with explicitly linking Execujet’s tax avoidance to Celtic. You wonder how they would have covered any leak of any Rangers shareholder involved in tax dodginess unconnected to Rangers. Actually, you don’t. They wouldn’t.

At the time of typing, reports are emerging that Desmond’s “people” may have gained legalese-based ambush-revenge on Daly. Ain’t nobody got time for that, surely?