By Anand Vasu
Josep Maria Bartomeu, former president of Barcelona Football Club in Spain, was arrested as part of a Catalan Police investigation into the alleged misuse of funds, and corruption.
Also arrested were Jaume Masferrer, Bartomeu’s assistant, Óscar Grau, the club’s chief executive, and Román Gómez Ponti, the head of legal services, The Guardian newspaper reported. Police also raided Camp Nou, the club’s club’s headquarters, to seize documents related to the investigation.
Soon after the arrests were made, Barcelona issued a statement offering full cooperation to authorities. “Regarding the entry and search by the Catalan Police force this morning at the Camp Nou offices by order of the Instructing Court number 13 in Barcelona, which is in charge of the case relating to the contacting of monitoring services on social networks, FC Barcelona have offered up their full collaboration to the legal and police authorities to help make clear facts which are subject to investigation,” the club said. “The information and documentation requested by the judicial police force relate strictly to the facts relative to this case. FC Barcelona express its utmost respect for the judicial process in place and for the principle of presumed innocence for the people affected within the remit of this investigation.”
The arrests are part of an investigation into the appointment of social media company I3, which is alleged to have set up websites, social media handles that wrote stories defending the president while discrediting opposition figures, former players and some current players.
It is alleged that Barcelona overpaid I3, something that was not detected as the transfers were made in multiple smaller amounts that did not require authorization from from the board or oversight from financial controllers.
In all payments of approximately $1.3 million were made to I3 in 2017-18. Each time, payments were smaller than $240,000, as any payment over this amount would have triggered internal monitoring mechanisms at the club.
An audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers cleared the club of wrongdoing and I3 insisted that the websites and social media accounts accused of discrediting certain individuals had nothing to do with them.
However investigating magistrate Ariadna Gil continued to look into the matter, and on March 1, officers from the Mossos d’Escuadra’s Economic Offences Unit were at the stadium, club officials confirmed.
This is the second time documents have been seized from the club’s premises, but the first time that arrests were made. Bartomeu, who resign as president of the club in Oct. 2020, was arrested at his home.
The club is set for presidential elections on March 7, with Joan Laporta, Víctor Font and Toni Freixa competing to run the club.
Barcelona who are more than $960 million in debt, are facing crisis on various fronts. Soon after the adverse story broke, six board members resigned.
A few months after this, compliance officer, Noemi Romero who headed up an internal investigation into the matter was fired, leading to the appointment of Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
Even after the PwC report found no evidence of wrongdoing, investigations continued as doubts were raised over the manner in which payments for the services by I3 were made, indicating a failure to follow protocol.