LEEDS UNITED have been plunged into further chaos today with owner Massimo Cellino having lost his appeal against his disqualification from owning the club.
A three-man Professional Conduct Committee, who heard Cellino’s case on Thursday, have arrived at their verdict, with the Italian’s ban from owning the club or sitting as a club director upheld.
Cellino had been barred by the Football League’s board from being an owner and director of Leeds in December after it ruled that his conviction in Italy for tax evasion - for not paying import duty on his yacht Nelie - was a “dishonest act” which failed to satisfy their fit and proper owners and directors’ test.
Cellino subsequently decided to appeal, but the challenge has proved unsuccessful.
Cellino has been disqualified from acting as a “relevant person” at Leeds United (ie owner or director) until April 10, 2015.
Cellino said on Monday evening: “I am in big shock after what has happened today. I wasn’t expecting anything like that. I think it was an unfair thing.”
On whether he would be staying beyond April 10, Cellino responded: “Anyway, I don’t know what I will do.”
A further misconduct charge against Cellino and the club for failing to supply the Italian Court judgment to The Football League when it first became available will be heard by a Football Disciplinary Commission in line with League regulations in due course.
The league statement in full read: “Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) chaired by Tim Kerr QC has rejected an appeal by Leeds United President Massimo Cellino against the recent decision by the Board of The Football League that he is subject to a disqualifying condition under its Owners’ and Directors’ Test.
“The PCC found that the reasoned judgment of the Italian court, once it had become available, was for an act involving dishonesty as determined by the Board in its original ruling in March 2014.
“Mr. Cellino’s appeal against that original decision had been upheld on the basis that it could not be concluded that the offence necessarily involved a ‘Dishonest Act’ for the purposes of the Test.
“Once the reasoned judgment became available, the Board considered the matter again and concluded that it clearly demonstrated that Mr. Cellino’s offence did indeed involve acts that would reasonably be considered to be dishonest.”
In its judgment, dismissing Mr Cellino’s appeal against the decision, the PCC stated: “We consider that the judge’s findings of fact and her description of Mr. Cellino’s state of mind based on them, is of conduct which would reasonably be considered to be dishonest.
“We therefore conclude that Mr Cellino has been convicted of an offence involving a ‘Dishonest Act’ within the meaning of the rules, and that he is accordingly subject to a ‘Disqualifying Condition’.”
A Football League spokesman said: “The Football League’s sole objective throughout this process has been to ensure that our regulations, as democratically approved by our member clubs, are complied with.
“These regulations uphold principles relating to club ownership that are widely recognised to be in the interests of the game and have the support of the other football authorities, the Government and football supporters generally.”
Meanwhile, Leeds have made a brief statement and expressed their surprise and disappointment at the decision to uphold Cellino’s ban.
A club statement said: “Mr Cellino would like to thank the fans, sponsors and members of the wider footballing community that have given him overwhelming support, not just since the disqualifying order was issued but since he arrived at the club.
“We are surprised and disappointed by the verdict, however we are continuing to take legal advice.
“We will release further statements in due course.”
Leeds are likely to appeal against the decision via FA rule K or through the courts.
The decision further adds to the unstable situation at Leeds, with Cellino - tellingly ahead of the appeal last week - speaking about being “worried for the club, not just the season’.
He went onto add that Leeds could face severe financial problems if he had to cede control of the club.
In the full judgment, it was revealed that a witness statement from United director Andrew Umbers warned the panel of ‘severe adverse consequences’ for the club and even a “real likelihood of insolvency’ if Cellino’s disqualification was upheld.
Leeds City Council also provided a supporting email statement speaking about the good relations between Cellino and the council, adding that “the city is starting to see a positive recovery and stability of the club is key to its future success.”
Speaking before his appeal was heard on Thursday, Cellino said: “I worry for the club, not just the season. Tomorrow is a big day.
“If I’m not here, if I can’t help, then who looks after the club? I don’t know what the League will do. If they force me out and tell me to sell, do I go or do I fight?
“I didn’t buy the club to sell it again and anyway, how long does it take to sell a club?
“I worry about what would happen in that time and how the club would survive.
“But at this moment I feel like I am forcing England to accept me.
“This is hurting us. I try to sign players but many players want to know if I’ll be here. And if not, what then? We have the embargo and that hurts us too.
“We aren’t free to buy the players we want.”
In its findings, the panel dismissed Cellino’s belief that the club would plunge into an ‘imminent demise’ if the disqualification was upheld.
An excerpt said: “We were not persuaded that this was a case where the imminent demise of the
Club would be likely to follow any disqualification.
“Mr Cellino has shown a strong desire to own and operate the Club and is plainly very attached to it.
“We see no evidence of any wish on his part to walk away from the Club, which an owner can always consider doing, whether or not disqualified.”
Cellino sought to have his disqualification from United overturned at a hearing last Thursday.
His appeal was heard by a three-person professional conduct committee, chaired by Tim Kerr QC.
Cellino had originally fined 600,000 euros (£465,000) by a court in Sardinia last March after being found guilty of failing to pay import duty on his yacht, Nelie.
Kerr was also the person who allowed Cellino’s original appeal back in April on the basis that there were no written reasons available from the court case which would determine whether it was a dishonest act or not.
However, the QC stated in his decision allowing that appeal: “If the reasoned ruling of the court in Cagliari discloses the conduct of Mr Cellino was such it would reasonably be considered to be dishonest, he would be [disqualified].”
The Football League then applied to the court in Cagliari for those written reasons, and once it had received them, its board took the view that the conviction did constitute a dishonest act and announced on December 1 that Cellino was to be disqualified.
The Football League originally said Cellino had to resign as a director of Leeds by December 29 but agreed to defer that deadline until two days after the final decision by the professional conduct committee.
Cellino is also the subject of a second tax evasion trial for allegedly failing to pay import duty of around £75,000 on a second yacht – called Lucky 23.
That trial was delayed in October and a new date has yet to be confirmed.
If Cellino, who denies that charge, is found guilty, it will be considered as a brand new case that will be judged separately from the previous trial.
The likely punishment for a conviction would be another separate 12-month disqualification.