Macari cleared of tax fraud in running football club

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The Independent Online
LOU MACARI, the former Scottish international footballer, ran in tears from the dock yesterday after being acquitted of conspiring to defraud the Inland Revenue while manager of Swindon Town Football Club. However, the club's former chairman, Brian Hillier, and its accountant, Vivian Farrar, were both found guilty.

The prosecution by the Inland Revenue is seen as an important first step in a crackdown against widespread tax fraud throughout the Football League.

After the hearing, Mr Macari, 43, of Loughton, Essex, who now manages Stoke City, alleged that the revenue service had targeted him because 'I am the name they want to get.' But he said that there were bigger names in the game whom the Inland Revenue could have gone after.

The five-week trial at Winchester Crown Court was told that Swindon Town rose from the Fourth to the brink of the First Division thanks to the managerial skills of Mr Macari, and a tax fiddle by Hillier and Farrar, who were part of a management team 'that was riddled with dishonesty', Michael Hubbard QC, for the prosecution, said.

Mr Hubbard maintained that Hillier and Mr Macari were the architects of a tax swindle involving hundreds of thousands of pounds in 'under-the-counter' payments to staff and players over a five-year period to 1990. Farrar, as club accountant, had assisted in misleading the club's auditors.

Mr Macari claimed that he was no cheat and knew nothing about tax-free payments. But he admitted breaking Football League rules. 'If you don't . . . you haven't got a football side'.

He said that he had made 'special arrangements' to help newcomers buy homes in high-priced Swindon. But he stressed that he was only a football player who knew nothing about tax and accountancy.

Hillier, 49, of Heddington, near Calne, Wiltshire, and Farrar, 41, of Lower Blunsdon, Swindon, will be sentenced today. Former club secretary David King has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Farrar was also found guilty of a charge of false accounting.

The jury heard evidence from 15 players - some of whom had been granted immunity from prosecution. Chris Kamara was lured from Brentford with illegal cash payments and a company car. Club captain Colin Calderwood joined the club after an offer of thousands of pounds in under- the-table payments.

The Argentine international and former Tottenham Hotspur player Ossie Ardiles, who succeeded Macari as manager, said that he had not liked what was going on and secured a promise that no more side payments would be made. But before an important match against Southampton he was forced to offer players a tax- free cash bonus if they won.

The trial marks what could be the only public airing of the major operation by the Inland Revenue to crack down on tax 'dodges' practised by many professional football clubs. For clubs on the financial breadline, the arrival of hefty bills for unpaid tax could sound the death knell.

Tax officials will not identify any other clubs involved, but the frauds uncovered at Swindon are not uncommon. One official at a Second Division club said last night: 'I would say everybody is doing it. The stupidity of Swindon is they did it so blatantly.'

The tax fraud schemes included offering players a signing-on fee, wage top-ups out of petty cash, siphoning money from the sales of match programmes and gate receipts, match and loyalty bonuses and man-of-the-match awards. The Inland Revenue will now seek to recover up to pounds 100,000 in taxes from the Swindon club.

The work of Inland Revenue investigators who are part of a special projects team will continue. However, instead of prosecution football clubs will be given the chance to pay the back tax, plus punitive penalties and interest.

An Inland Revenue spokesman said: 'If we suspect there is an irregularity we will investigate until we are satisfied there is no abuse, or we have controlled it and counteracted it.

'The Swindon prosecution is clearly a warning for anyone else who is doing this.'

It is known the Inland Revenue was alerted about other clubs before a routine audit of Swindon in 1989 highlighted irregularities. The Swindon case has also given new leads that will be followed.