Leeds United: Legal threats to Cellino diminishing

Massimo Cellino.
Massimo Cellino.
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Following Massimo Cellino’s aquittal in the Italian courts over tax evasion on an imported Range Rover on Monday, Phil Hay looks at how the land lies with the United owner’s other ongoing court cases.

There was a time when Massimo Cellino was surrounded by court cases and prone to attacks by the Football League. But two years on from his buy-out of Leeds United, he is one step ahead of a governing body which is running out of reasons to fight him.

When Cellino agreed to purchase a majority stake in Leeds in early 2014, he had no fewer than five legal cases outstanding against him in Italy: two involving imported yachts, one involving an imported Range Rover, another concerning transfers at his old club Cagliari and, by far the most serious, allegations of embezzlement relating to the construction of the IS Arenas in Sardinia four years ago.

The case of the yacht ‘Neilie’ – a private ship on which Cellino was found guilty of evading tax after importing it from the USA to Italy – was the basis of the Football League’s attempt to block his takeover of United and later used to ban him as a club director between January and May in 2015. The disqualification was expected to be the first of several, such was the list of offences facing Cellino in the Italian courts, but the legal threat to his ownership is diminished, with one exception.

In December, the 59-year-old was cleared of breaking tax laws during the transfer of ex-Cagliari players Edgar Alvarez and Joe Bizera in 2007. A case relating to another yacht, ‘Lucky 23’, was scheduled to be heard in January but has not progressed since then. And on Monday, Italy’s Court of Appeal acquitted Cellino of tax evasion on an imported Range Rover. Having been confiscated previously, the car is being returned to him and a fine of 40,000 Euros was reversed.

The Range Rover case is significant in the context of Leeds United because it laid the ground for the 223-day Football League ban imposed on Cellino last October.

His success in overturning the conviction in Cagliari has undermined the governing body’s argument for disqualifying him for a second time. The League’s Owners and Directors Test allows it to disqualify a ‘relevant person’ at any of its 72 member clubs but only for ‘dishonest’ criminal acts.

Cellino was acquitted in the Range Rover case because of changes to Italian law which effectively decriminalised certain offences. In effect, what had been a criminal case when Cellino was found guilty last June is no longer classed as one. The authorities in Cagliari will not comment on whether those changes might result in the case of ‘Lucky 23’ being thrown out – in that instance, Cellino was accused of failing to pay more than 80,000 Euros of tax – but silence has surrounded those proceedings for the past four months, despite expectations that it would be dealt with at the start of the year.

The Football League will discuss Cellino’s acquittal in the Range Rover case and the implications for his 223-day suspension at a meeting of its board tomorrow but it is likely that it will reverse that ban. Cellino appealed against it in October and has been fighting the sanction separately through the Football Association’s Rule K arbitration process. To date, almost seven months on, he has not served a day of it. Neither he nor Leeds have responded to questions about whether they expect his pending disqualification to be dismissed but, as the rules of the League demand, the club are expected to inform the governing body of his change of circumstances promptly.

Cellino argued at the time of the ‘Nelie’ case that offences in Italy should not be viewed as formal convictions until they have passed through two stages of appeal. That claim was rejected by the QC, Tim Kerr, who allowed his takeover of Leeds to go ahead in 2014 but Cellino’s acquittal this week leaves the Football League in a tangle, with little justification for upholding his ban. Around Christmas, Cellino told the YEP that changes to Italian law would mean that some of the charges against him were no longer considered to be criminal offences and, as such, would be dropped. The Sardinian newspaper L’Unione Sarda reported on Monday that “recent legislative changes on the decriminalisation of certain tax offences led the judges to declare that (Cellino’s Range Rover offence) is no longer a crime.”

Cellino remains in the thick of the IS Arenas trial, a case which is currently active in Italy. On Monday, two of the other accused were jailed for two years and six months respectively after a round of plea bargaining. Another, a surveyor called Giorgio Caria, was acquitted. Cellino, who spent a short time in prison after his arrest in Cagliari in 2013, denies any wrongdoing. The case is due to resume again next week.

It is, seemingly, the only remaining threat to Cellino’s ownership from the Italian courts and the only case which might breach the Football League’s ownership rules. Closer to home, the FA is still believed to be investigating an alleged illegal payment made by United to one of Ross McCormack’s representatives after his transfer to Fulham in 2014 and claims that Leeds’ signing of Adryan from Flamengo that same summer breached rules on third-party ownership. Neither Leeds nor Cellino have been charged, however, and the FA has consistently refused to comment on whether any action will be taken.

Cellino missed United’s final game of the Championship season at Preston on Saturday. He is said to have been in London receiving treatment on a bad back. The irony for him after 12 hard months and another fraught season is that Monday’s acquittal in the Italian courts might leave him feeling that his hold on a majority share at Elland Road is stronger than it has been at any other stage of his two years in charge.

He touched briefly on his pending 223-day ban in an interview with the Telegraph last month, saying: “If someone has got a brain and we really care about football, we will get it sorted out.” In agreeing with his legal argument, Italy’s Court of Appeal appears to have left the Football League on very flimsy ground.