Following the announcement yesterday from The Football League that the appeal by the Leeds United Owner Massimo Cellino against his disqualification under the Owners and Directors test had been rejected, FrontRow Legal’s Principal Richard Cramer was once again on hand to provide expert opinion to the national and local press on the ramifications of this decision. For a selection of this commentary please see below:
A brief overview of the present situation is provided below:
The latest development relates to an Italian Judgment dated March 2014, whereby Mr Cellino was found guilty of failing to pay import duty tax on a luxury yacht. As a result of this, he was ordered to pay a fine in the region of 600,000 euros. Subsequently, The Football League endeavoured to block his attempt to acquire the majority shareholding of Leeds United under their Owners and Directors test, previously known as the Fit and Proper Persons test. Under this, individuals who have unspent convictions for offences of dishonesty are disqualified from taking such action.
Mr Cellino successfully appealed against this decision in May 2014, when an independent QC, Mr Tim Kerr, ruled that the offence could not be proven to be dishonest until such time as the full Judgment from Sardinia had been released. Mr Cellino finally became the majority shareholder of Leeds United in April 2014 when his company Eleonora Sport Limited agreed to purchase the club from previous owners GFH (Gulf Finance House) Capital, a limb of the Bahraini investment bank GFH.
Following the release of the full Italian Judgment, The Football League subsequently found that Mr Cellino had, in fact, acted dishonestly in relation to the tax evasion case. They therefore moved to disqualify him. Under this disqualification, Mr Cellino was ordered to resign as a club director and take steps to ensure that he is not acting as a relevant person at the Club within 28 days. Mr Cellino however appealed against this decision, which allowed him to continue in his role pending the appeal.
A Professional Conduct Committee, set up by The Football League and chaired once again by Tim Kerr QC, considered the appeal at a Hearing on 15 January 2015 and rejected it. Following this decision, the Leeds United Owner has now been disqualified from acting as a ‘relevant person’ until 10 April 2015. Under the relevant rule, Mr Cellino’s conviction will be deemed ‘spent’ on 18 March 2015, however the suspension will be extended as a result of the appeals process.
Leeds United’s Chief Operating Office Matt Child has however confirmed that the Club continue to consult with their lawyers and it may be the case that we are yet to hear the end of this matter. When it comes to Leeds United, its fans will be familiar with their Club being in the press recently more for their off-field activities rather than their performances on the pitch. It is almost certain that this latest scenario has a long way to go yet. It will certainly be interesting to see what sort of frameworks are put in place to run the club in Mr Cellino’s temporary absence and whether this latest decision has any long-term effect on the passion of the Owner and subsequently Leeds United as a Club.