Leeds United chief Cellino remains ‘confident’ over court cases

Massimo Cellino. PIC: Tony Johnson
Massimo Cellino. PIC: Tony Johnson

Massimo Cellino hoped that the ownership ban imposed on him by the Football League in January would be his first and his last. A fortnight ago, in an interview with the BBC, the 59-year-old made the confident prediction that he would not face “anything like that in the future.”

A fortnight ago, in an interview with the BBC, the 59-year-old made the confident prediction that he would not face “anything like that in the future.”

Cellino’s legal battles have kept a lower profile in his second year as Leeds United’s owner, limited so far to a fine for tax evasion on an imported Range Rover, but no fewer than three other cases involving him were scheduled to return to court this week. Cellino spent time with his lawyers in Italy last week but flew back to England before the first hearing took place in Cagliari yesterday.

In that case, he is one of 11 people accused of various offences including embezzlement and forgery relating to the construction of the IS Arenas, a temporary stadium used by Cagliari while Cellino ran the Sardinian club.

Yesterday’s preliminary hearing set November 9 as the date on which a decision will be made over whether to send Cellino and others for trial. According to local media reports, a number of the accused have begun plea-bargaining. Cellino himself denies any wrongdoing.

More immediate for him are two separate matters, both of which are expected to resume in court this Friday. One concerns a tax dispute involving transfers made by Cagliari, again in Cellino’s time as club owner. The other has echoes of the case last year which left him in breach of the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test and earned him a short disqualification.

That ban stemmed from Cellino’s failure to pay around £300,000 in import duty owed on a private yacht named ‘Nelie’.

He was found guilty of tax evasion in March 2014 – less than a month before he completed his takeover of Leeds – and incurred a fine of close to £500,000. After a long wait to acquire court documents and an attempt by Cellino to avoid disqualification on appeal, the Football League eventually banned him on January 15. He completed his suspension on May 3.

One of Friday’s hearings, involving a second yacht called ‘Lucky 23’, is expected to deliver a verdict after repeated postponements during the past 12 months. Cellino is accused of evading a VAT payment of around £75,000 after importing the boat from the USA in 2011. He denies the charge against him. A conviction in that case would potentially put Cellino at risk of another Football League ban, though the governing body is yet to confirm whether it intends to take action over the recent penalty imposed on him in June.

Cellino was hit with a fine of more than £30,000 having failed to pay tax on an imported Range Rover. He was, however, cleared of customs offences due to the value of the car falling below Italy’s threshold for criminal liability.

The Football League was asked to comment on the Range Rover case and to confirm whether the penalty broke its rules governing club owners and directors. It did not respond but back in July, a source at the League told the YEP that the scale of the offence was likely to be too low to justify a second ownership ban.

Cellino appeared hopeful of avoiding future sanctions, telling the BBC: “It’s happened one time and I accept that because I come from another country. I don’t want to think about the negative things.

“It happened last year, I accepted it. I did not agree with it but I accept the rules and show respect for the English rules. I don’t think there’s going to be anything like that in the future.

“In Italy I was worrying (about) everything. In Italy I didn’t feel comfortable or protected from anything. In England I don’t feel the same way. The country is more solid. I don’t want to worry about the League or anything.”

The third set of allegations against Cellino, relating to the transfers of former Cagliari players Joe Bizera and Edgar Alvarez, are the result of an investigation launched by the Italian authorities in 2007.

The case – in which charges concerning a third player, Honduran striker David Suazo, have already been dropped – centres on a dispute over more than £500,000 of tax. Now back in Leeds, Cellino is not planning to attend either of Friday’s hearings. United’s owner argued in the wake of his Football League ban that offences in Italy should not be classed as convictions under League rules until they have passed through two stages of appeal in Italy.

Following the League’s decision to disqualify him in January, Cellino said he would ask the Football Association to review his ban via arbitration under FA Rule K. The Italian hoped that the FA would uphold his claim that offences dealt with by the Italian legal system should not be seen as convictions while the appeals process is ongoing.

It is not clear, however, whether Cellino ever made a formal request to the FA to begin arbitration or if the process is ongoing. The FA says its rules prohibit it on discussing cases of that nature and speaking yesterday, Cellino said only that “everything was under control positively.”