A director of an online gambling company linked to two Premier League clubs has been arrested in connection with a £21m fraud and money-laundering investigation, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Former football manager Harry Redknapp was signed for an advertising blitz last year by 666Bet, which announced deals with West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City. Last week, the UK gambling regulator suspended its licence.
One of the firm’s directors was arrested at Heathrow airport last week as part of a joint HM Revenue & Customs and National Crime Agency investigation. Six other people were also arrested, 13 properties were raided and £1m in cash seized as part of Operation Bannock, an HMRC-led investigation involving police officers from across the UK, as well as investigators on the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
Paul Bell, a former stockbroker turned investor, was later released by police before being re-arrested the following day when he arrived on the Isle of Man by private jet.
Neil Andrews, 666Bet’s head of brand, said in an email: “I can categorically state the [police] investigation does not relate to 666Bet’s activities in the gamin [sic] world.” He added that the inquiry has “nothing to do with the day-to-day running of 666Bet”.
The Gambling Commission refused to comment yesterday, but has previously said its suspension of the Metro Play Limited licence, which covers 666Bet and Metro Play, does not prevent the firm from “returning outstanding balances to customers”.
The 666Bet website is currently offline; a holding message advises customers that it is “performing maintenance”. There is no suggestion that Metro Play Ltd, 666Bet or Metro Play, are involved in the HMRC investigation.
Mr Bell, who is reported to be worth around £400m and is a shareholder in several FTSE-listed companies, is said to have interests ranging from payroll and recruitment to development, hospitals and care homes. A source said yesterday that Mr Bell “vigorously denied any wrongdoing” and was a “well respected” member of the business community on the Isle of Man who gave “generously” to local charities.
Documents from the Isle of Man Financial Crime Unit, seen by The IoS, lists Mr Bell as an individual who is currently “part of an active criminal investigation”. The note to regulators lists three other individuals and 25 firms as also under investigation.
The most visible of Mr Bell’s business interests, 666Bet entered the crowded online football betting market last year with a blaze of publicity and a promised £8m marketing budget and a shirt-sponsorship deal with Leyton Orient.
Last week, the League One side terminated its deal with the firm, while Mr Redknapp, speaking from Dubai, said: “I just did an advert for them. I don’t know anything about it at all. Not a clue.”
The adverts, which were a coup for 666Bet, also featured actor Vas Blackwood, best known for playing Rory Breaker in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, describing the 666Bet as a “red-hot betting site”.
Simon Perfitt, founder of the Rethink Gambling charity, said “aggressive marketing and advertising” had allowed sport betting brands to become highly embedded in football culture”, and led to a situation where many vulnerable young men “associate sport with gambling”.
He added: “Given the high social costs and consequences of gambling addiction, it is vital that the regulator prioritises consumer protection over ensuring the growth of the sector, which has rather perversely been its policy until now.”
According to gambling industry insiders, 666Bet had big ambitions in Asia, where many Premier League teams are popular, and had recently announced plans to open an office in Taiwan. However, like some other gambling firms, it was believed to be suffering from a new wave of regulation across Europe which is causing difficulties for the $37bn (£25bn) global online gambling industry.
In the UK, the Government has this year required overseas-based operators to apply for licences and will start taxing online companies on their British revenue. Meanwhile, a European Union “digital tax” is threatening profits.
Warwick Bartlett, of gambling consultancy GBGC, said additional tax regulation in the UK would cost firms hundreds of millions and that many were already “consolidating” to survive or “cutting back on marketing costs”.
Gavin West, director of Ampla Consulting, which specialises in indirect tax advice to the gaming industry, said the introduction of VAT and further tax liabilities on online gambling operators made it “difficult and potentially financially unviable” for many to continue operation.
Mr Bell was unavailable for comment via several firms where he is listed as a director or has an interest.