English football clubs can be bought off by criminals to launder the proceeds of their crimes, an Al Jazeera secret investigation has revealed.
The investigation explores the murky world of club ownership in English football and exposes how the rules are being broken.
The men who sell football, by Al Jazeera Investigation Unit (I-Unit), shows intermediaries explaining to undercover journalists how they can hide money and the identity of a criminal behind offshore trusts and submit fraudulent due diligence reports to English football authorities.
It also shows how the same middlemen use “dirty tricks” and can obtain new passports for criminals – with new names – to deceive football authorities.
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“Football fans should be angry because the investigation shows the … vulnerability of the English football system to funds of dubious origin and inappropriate owners for their clubs,” said Ben Cowdock of Transparency International, who is investigating the money laundering.
“Al Jazeera’s investigation into the ownership of a football club will be of great interest to the police as well as to the English football authorities.”
Posing as agents of a wealthy fictional Chinese criminal, I-Unit undercover reporters contact an intermediary, Christopher Samuelson, who helped them strike a deal to buy Derby County, one of the oldest England football clubs and two-time England champion in the 1970s.
Samuelson is a trust fund manager and football negotiator known as “The Magician”.
According to offshore financial analyst Adrian Gatton, Samuelson has been told that he “can make an elephant disappear,” a reference to his skills in concealing funds using trust accounts.
This “ultimate shadow man” has been the subject of money laundering investigations in several European countries but has never been charged.
Journalists told Samuelson that their client, “Mr. X,” was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison in absentia for bribery and money laundering, and smuggled money out of China via casinos in Macau.
Now he wanted to clear him by buying a football club, Samuelson was told.
The English Football League (EFL) Owners and administrators test Prohibits anyone with an unused criminal conviction with a sentence of more than 12 months from owning a club.
Unfazed by the client’s crimes, Samuelson gave a step-by-step guide on how he can use offshore trusts to hide the investor’s money and identity.
To hide Mr X’s conviction, Samuelson proposed to use two so-called minority investors to “deal” with the Derby County purchase as co-shareholders of an offshore company.
They would sign a “declaration of trust” certifying that they hold shares for MX Under this arrangement, Mr. X’s identity would be withheld.
“We’re just going to make it”
Samuelson told undercover reporters he would make sure the criminal investor was approved by the EFL.
“I’m going to get some idea of how we can structure it to beat the EFL. I can put pressure on the football league, ”he told Al Jazeera undercover reporters. “We will manage it. We’re just going to make it.
Samuelson took reporters to Derby, where they met club owner Mel Morris to discuss a £ 99million ($ 137million) deal to buy Derby County. Morris suggested that he become a minority shareholder.
On the brink of ruin, “dirty tricks”
Samuelson has long been a player in international trade. In the 1990s, he helped found Valmet, one of the largest offshore trust companies in the world.
His companies have transferred hundreds of millions of dollars out of Russia for oligarchs, including Boris Berezovsky and “Badri” Patarkatsishvili.
In 2004, he struck a deal using opaque offshore trusts for a secret Russian tycoon to buy Premier League club Everton.
The deal fell through after the mogul’s name Boris Zingarevich leaked to the media.
In 2012 and 2016, respectively, he set up deals for the purchase of two English clubs – Reading and Aston Villa. The two were brought to the brink of financial ruin under mysterious new owners.
Samuelson told Al Jazeera undercover reporters how he and an associate, a private investigator and former Scotland Yard detective, Keith Hunter, used “dirty stuff” to make the deals.
In a meeting with undercover Al Jazeera reporters, Hunter confirmed that he obtained private phone records from a British journalist to find the “mole” who leaked Zingarevich’s name.
In the case of Aston Villa, “we were watching what the football league was saying behind the scenes,” Samuelson said. “They didn’t know that, of course,” he added.
An internal Scotland Yard report obtained by the I-Unit shows that Hunter was investigated, but not charged, by the anti-corruption team and was suspected of being “a briber. aggressive in the service of the personnel of the metropolitan police department ”.
Samuelson and Hunter said they could help undercover journalists get a new passport for their client and give him a new name to completely deceive football authorities.
“We’ve done this many times for others who I can assure you are in a worse situation than your boss,” Hunter said.
Hunter then introduced Al Jazeera’s undercover agents to contacts in Cyprus.
In a series of meetings, a network of facilitators, including an MEP and the de facto vice-president, expressed their willingness to help the non-existent criminal investor obtain a European passport with a new name, even if a conviction criminal should disqualify someone who applied through the country’s investment passport.
This investigation into Cypriot passports has been freed in October 2020 and led to high-level resignations, EU and Cyprus government inquiries, the scrapping the passport regime and weeks of anti-corruption protests in Cyprus.
Responses from those affected
Responding to the I-Unit’s findings, Samuelson’s attorneys said he was never told that MX had been convicted of money laundering and bribery and that if he had knowledge of a any criminality, he would have immediately put an end to the discussions.
Hunter declined to go into the details of our findings, but said he strongly disagreed with most of them.
Hunter said he left an exemplary file with the police.
Morris told Al Jazeera that the club would only be sold to “appropriate custodians” and that they had not had any “formal association” with Samuelson for some time.
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