Former Barcelona president Joan Laporta has defended both Lionel Messi and his father Jorge against allegations of tax fraud, with the two facing a fraud complaint that could carry a prison sentence for the Balon d’Or winner and his father.
The two are accused of having avoided €4m ($5.3m) in back taxes by using illegal overseas tax havens, with a complaint filed by the Spanish state prosecutor on Wednesday, but Laporta , who was at the club between 2003-10, believes that the pair have done nothing wrong.
“I am convinced that neither Leo nor his father have committed any infraction,” Laporta told Cope radio. “The situation could be that they don’t have any responsibility in these events. There can be third parties who are responsible.
“I know them and they have always wanted to act within the law, and that’s how they acted with the club, at least when I was president.”
Laporta admitted that both Lionel and Jorge lacked the financial knowhow to have set up a network of shell companies and tax havens in countries which include Belize and Uruguay, which are described in the prosecutor’s complaint. Messi has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers issued a statement yesterday saying he “has always punctually attended to his fiscal obligations”.
“They were always careful,” Laporta continued. “Let’s say even wary, when faced with these situations that were over their heads because they didn’t have the knowledge of a lawyer of a tax expert, and so they went out and got advisors.”
The case was submitted to the court in Gavá near the coastal town where Messi resides. Spain’s sport minister Jose Wert asked for “patience” when dealing with the long legal process that is likely to be ahead of the Barcelona forward. “(The law) is the same for everyone,” he said. “Even for the No1.”
A judge at the court must accept the prosecutor’s complaint before charges can be brought against Messi and his father, with the decision expected in a matter of days.
Should the duo be found guilty and an out-of-court deal with the tax office is not made, they could face a jail sentence of between two to six years, according to Professor Sandalio Gómez, a sports finance analyst at the IESE business school, University of Navarra.
With Barcelona’s presidency due to go to a vote again in 2016, Laporta is considering running again following his foray into politics, and he has said that under his previous reign at the club Messi directly controlled 100% of earnings from his image rights.
However, he admitted that Barcelona followed a common practice of paying 15% of Messi’s salary to a company that controlled his image rights, though he did not remember where that company was based.
“If it was a company based outside Spain it would have been a registered company and, in that sense, a lawful company,” he explained.
Messi is rated by Forbes as the world’s 10th highest-paid athlete, reportedly earning $41.3m to June this year, with $20.3m coming from his club salary and $21m in endorsements.