Leeds United fans are braced for a prolonged period of uncertainty over the club’s future after an Italian court found prospective owner Massimo Cellino guilty of tax evasion.
The 57-year-old has been waiting for the Football League to approve his takeover of the Whites since his company Eleonora Sports agreed a £25million deal to buy 75 per cent of the club’s shares at the beginning of February.
But the Italian’s bid to take control at Elland Road appears to have been scuppered after he was fined 600,000 euros by Judge Sandra Lepore in a Cagliari court for failing to pay more than 400,000 euros in import tax on his luxury yacht, Nelie, which he bought in 2010 and has now been confiscated.
Cellino’s lawyer Giovanni Cocco immediately announced the Miami-based businessman planned to appeal against the court’s ruling.
The Football League has been in protracted negotiations with Cellino’s legal representatives in England and was understood to be waiting for the outcome of the court hearing before making a decision on the ownership of Leeds.
A Football League statement read: “The Football League has noted the outcome of the court hearing earlier (on Tuesday) regarding Massimo Cellino.
“We are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with his legal representatives in this country and cannot comment further at this time.”
The governing body’s ‘owners and directors’ test, prevents anyone with an unspent conviction for dishonesty offences from being a director, a 30 per cent owner, or from exercising control over one of its clubs.
Leeds supporters can now expect further delays and more legal wrangling between Cellino and the League as the uncertainty over their club continues.
Leeds managing director David Haigh insisted last week that there is “no chance” of the club going into administration, as it is Cellino’s money which has been keeping the club going.
“This verdict is absolutely unjust and we will appeal,” Cocco told the Guardian after the brief court session.
Cellino, currently the owner of Cagliari, denies that he was seeking to evade import duty on the yacht.
He told the court in December that he had planned to have it sailed to the United States, where he had bought it, but was unable to due to damage to the vessel.
Cellino, who exchanged contracts with Leeds’ current owners Gulf finance House Capital to buy 75 per cent of the club’s shares on February 1, has already provided considerable funds to cover running costs at Elland Road.
He has covered the club’s staff wage bill for the last two months and has paid off a loan from shirt sponsors Enterprise Insurance to stave off a winding-up order.
Since the takeover deal with GFH Capital was agreed, Leeds have also signed Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland and Sunderland striker Connor Wickham on loan until the end of the season.
Cellino’s lawyers started talks with the Football League at the end of January and the Cagliari owner met with the governing body on February 12.
Bahrain-based investment firm GFH Capital has been searching for major investment since buying the club from Ken Bates in December 2012.
A rival consortium to Cellino, headed by Andrew Flowers, chief executive of club sponsor Enterprise Insurance, withdrew from the race to take control at Elland Road at the end of January, but a third group, Together Leeds, fronted by former Manchester United international managing director Mike Farnan, has been waiting in the background.
GFH Capital has so far refused to enter into serious talks with Together Leeds after rejecting a “derisory” offer from them in November.
Cellino has twice been previously convicted of fraud and is currently contesting a separate charge of embezzlement.
He received a 15-month suspended prison sentence in 2001 after being convicted of false accounting at Cagliari.
A previous conviction in 1996 for fraudulently claiming EU agricultural subsidies was overturned in 2012, while in February 2013 he spent 16 days in jail after being arrested for embezzlement - a charge he denies - in relation to the redevelopment of Cagliari’s Is Arena stadium.
But Cellino’s two previous convictions, nearly 13 and 18 years old, are considered “spent” in English law and it is understood they cannot be taken into consideration under the League’s test.
In relation to his outstanding charge, Cellino is assumed innocent until it can be proved otherwise and he denies the allegations.
Cellino, long considered one of the most charismatic owners in Italian football, was shown around Leeds’ Thorp Arch training ground for the first time in October.
A Leeds spokesman said on Tuesday that the club would not be commenting at this stage and were waiting for the Football League’s definitive decision on Cellino’s proposed takeover before issuing a statement.
Cellino said publicly last week that he could no longer continue to bankroll the club until the League gives his takeover the go ahead.
He also said he would “walk away” from Leeds without a fight if he did not pass the League’s test.
But it seems the agricultural entrepreneur is not ready to give up his fight yet.
Cellino’s lawyer Professor Cocco told BBC Radio Leeds that the appeal against the tax evasion verdict could take between six and nine months.
Cocco added: “According to my point of view, this business (on Tuesday) has no relevance whatsoever to the decision of the Football League.
“Obviously that’s up to the Football League themselves.
“In my opinion, as a lawyer, today’s sentence has no relevance to the takeover of Leeds United.
“The verdict does not mean that Cellino is guilty - because in Italian law he can only be guilty after the third stage of the process. Today he is innocent.”