Totally Unbiased? Possible Conflict of Interest Dogs Football Leaks Probe

A potential conflict of interest is hampering proceedings by European prosecutors who are looking into the Football Leaks data trove. Revelations about a Portuguese official raise questions about whether the whistleblower in the case can expect a fair trial in Portugal.
Antonio Cluny

Antonio Cluny

Foto: imago/ Pedro Benavente

With his gray hair, placid expression and gentle facial features, Antonio Cluny was the most inconspicuous figure on the podium for the press conference last week in The Hague in the Netherlands. The lawyer was sitting on the far left behind the speaker's podium, together with five other colleagues. Eurojust, the European Union agency that facilitates cooperation between EU prosectuors, had extended the invitation for a working meeting, the focus of which was on the probes into findings from Football Leaks, the largest data leak in history. But the meeting produced more controversy than expected.

Ten countries have expressed interest in the gigantic trove of data. Under the leadership of French authorities, the working meeting in The Hague had been set up to determine who and under what circumstances authorities would be permitted to work with the millions of files of data from the heart of the football industry. Investigators are hoping the information will provide evidence of serious tax evasion, collective fraud, embezzlement, corruption and money laundering.

Cluny was present as Portugal's Eurojust representative at the press conference. And the fact that he didn't disclose a personal conflict of interest in the course of these proceedings has been the source of significant irritation among his colleagues. Furthermore, it confirms the fears of the whistleblower who gathered the Football Leaks data. Because there are now suspicions Cluny may not be impartial.

But first things first.

Football Leaks is a raft of data that sheds light on the dirty side of the professional football business. The documents offer insights into the inner workings of numerous companies whose revenues end up taking circuitous routes through offshore countries. Financial authorities in Europe have often been kept in the dark about the nested corporate structures, but the documents reveal everything: articles of incorporation, ownership structures, payment flows, wire transfers and bank account numbers.

A source named "John" has been providing DER SPIEGEL with the data since the beginning of 2016. The newsmagazine shared more than 70 million documents with the journalist network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) and those documents have provided the basis for more than 800 investigative articles  over the past three years. The publication of the articles has led to numerous investigations and trials. Among others, Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho were slapped with suspended sentences and fines for tax fraud.

But the whistleblower behind Football Leaks is facing his own trouble with the law following his arrest in mid-January. He has since discarded his pseudonym John and revealed  his real name to the public: Rui Pinto. The 30-year-old Portuguese national is now under house arrest in Budapest after Portuguese investigators issued an arrest warrant against him on suspicion of attempted extortion and cybercrime. They are demanding Pinto's extradition to Portugal. Pinto denies  the accusations and is waging a legal fight to prevent his deportation.

Antonio Cluny, the inconspicuous man at the press conference in The Hague, used to be the deputy prosecutor general of Portugal and has been representing his country's interests at Eurojust since 2014. He said at the press conference that Portugal is also interested in analyzing the data gathered by Pinto, but he also stressed that his country would continue to insist on Pinto's extradition.

That insistence has angered his Eurojust colleagues from elsewhere in Europe because Pinto has been cooperating with French financial investigators at the Parquet National Financier for several months and has handed over around 12 million files thus far. That, though, represents only about 10 percent of his total data. The plan had been for Pinto to be introduced this year into a French witness protection program designed specifically for "particularly vulnerable informants." At that point, he had intended to turn over the rest of his information to investigators. But his arrest in Budapest got in the way.

'The Football Mafia Is Everywhere'

When Pinto was arrested, Hungarian officials confiscated computers, mobile phones and hard drives at his apartment. But the devices are reportedly encrypted and password protected, so it's questionable how much time it will take investigators to access those files or if it will even be possible to do so without Pinto's help. Although the whistleblower is still offering to cooperate, his condition is that he not be extradited to Portugal if he does so. Some of the prosecutors attending the meeting in The Hague also expressed concern that large parts of the data might be destroyed in Portugal given that the European arrest warrant against Pinto only applies to allegations made in the autumn of 2015. It appears that Portuguese investigators would not be allowed to review or use any data beyond that timeframe in the context of legal investigations.

Pinto expressed his concerns very clearly in an interview  with EIC just a few weeks ago. "I am fairly certain that I will not be given a fair trial in Portugal," he said. "The judiciary in Portugal is not completely independent, there are a lot of hidden interests. Of course, there are public prosecutors and judges who take their job seriously. But this football mafia is everywhere. They want to send the message that no one should pick a fight with them."

Pinto gave that interview several weeks ago, before Cluny attended the press conference in The Hague. And as it turns out, Cluny did not, in fact, share critical information that has now cast doubt on his independence.

What Cluny shared neither publicly nor with his colleagues at Eurojust is that he's the father of João Lima Cluny, a top lawyer at the Portuguese law firm Morais Leitão. The firm represents Cristiano Ronaldo, José Mourinho and many other big names in the football world who ran into trouble with the judiciary following the publication of Football Leaks documents. In his private messages, Ronaldo affectionately calls one of the firm's partners, Carlos Osório de Castro, "father." Osório de Castro has served as Ronaldo's legal adviser since the beginning of the football player's career and the Porto-based lawyer has also coordinated Ronaldo's defense strategy for the rape allegations that have been leveled against him.

Authorities in the United States reopened  that investigation after DER SPIEGEL published a series of articles last year about the rape allegation. They also attended the Eurojust meeting in The Hague last Tuesday in the hope of obtaining further documents relating to the allegations -- documents that could also directly concern the law firm Morais Leitão. For example, a questionnaire in which the lawyers apparently question Ronaldo about the alleged night of the crime. That questionnaire  has the potential to seriously incriminate Ronaldo. In it, Ronaldo is quoted as saying that alleged victim Kathryn Mayorga  "said no and stop several times." A lawyer from Ronaldo's team recently described the questionnaire as a "pure invention," and Ronaldo himself denies the rape allegation.

Many Questions Unanswered

The question of Antonio Cluny's possible bias now threatens to become a significant test for Eurojust. On one side are the investigators from several European countries who want to work with Pinto and his data to uncover additional crimes. On the other is Portugal, which is demanding Pinto's immediate extradition -- and whose top Eurojust representative has close family ties with a law firm whose clients appear in numerous revelations from the Football Leaks documents.

Antonio Cluny's son, as the Football Leaks documents clearly show, worked on several occasions for players represented by Jorge Mendes, who also happens to be Ronaldo's agent. Revelations contained in the Football Leaks documents also triggered investigations into Mendes on suspicion of tax evasion. Furthermore, Football Leaks whistleblower Pinto is also no stranger to João Lima Cluny, with the two already having faced each other in a legal challenge. In 2014, the lawyer represented a bank in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tax haven, in a legal dispute with Pinto. Pinto had transferred a six-figure sum from the bank to his private account and the bank was demanding its money back. For whatever reason, the case never went to trial. Instead, Pinto signed an out-of-court settlement, which was also signed by João Lima Cluny.

Is Antonio Cluny, as the father and Portugal's representative at Eurojust, still capable of acting neutrally in such a situation? Is he not caught up in a conflict of interest that he should have been obligated to disclose before the Eurojust negotiations even began?

Cluny himself doesn't believe so. EIC partner Expresso, an influential Portuguese weekly, reached Antonio Cluny by phone last Friday and Cluny said he was impartial insisting that he had merely acted as a spokesman for the Portuguese investigators. He also says although he participated in the press conference he did not take part in the working meeting on Football Leaks and that a representative attended instead. Beyond that, Cluny said, there wasn't much more to say.

DER SPIEGEL also contacted both Antonio Cluny and his son João Lima Cluny in writing on behalf of EIC. We asked whether reports in the Portuguese media were true that Antonio Cluny had helped push through the European arrest warrant against Rui Pinto at Eurojust at the insistence of the Portuguese attorney general. And whether information had been exchanged between father and son about the Football Leaks case. Finally, we asked whether João Lima Cluny ever asked his father for information about Football Leaks or asked him to take certain actions in the course of the proceedings.

Antonio Cluny issued a general statement but did not answer the individual questions. In the statement, he said he had never been involved in the Eurojust investigations at any point in time. He said he had no knowledge that the law firm Morais Leitão or his son had worked on the cases. Antonio Cluny also wrote that, after receiving DER SPIEGEL's request for comment, he contacted the Portuguese authorities and received assurances that neither the law firm nor his son had been involved in these cases in any way.

That's interesting given that Ronaldo's lawyer and confidant Carlos Osório de Castro, one of Morais Leitão's most important partners, was investigated in Spain during Ronaldo's tax affair. Osório de Castro was even listed as a suspect. The question of the extent to which lawyers with the law firm Morais Leitão were actually involved in the offshore tax structures that many of the players close to agent Jorge Mendes had in place still hasn't been clarified today. To date, no case has been opened against any of the lawyers on suspicion of aiding and abetting tax evasion, and the investigations have been closed, in part due to a lack of evidence, as people familiar with the case in Spain explain.

The kind of evidence investigators may now be looking for in Rui Pinto's Football Leaks documents. The data very clearly reveal the dubious role played by the lawyers, showing, for example, how they apparently changed and backdated documents.

Morais Leitão stated that the suggestion that "any" of the lawyers at the firm where António Cluny works, "would try to influence Mr. António Cluny's decisions is not only wholly unsupported, but also defamatory." It further stated there is no conflict of interest. João Lima Cluny, it said, is not assigned to any of the cases in which Morais Leitão clients have had trouble with the judiciary as a result of Football Leaks revelations. The statement also notes that the legal dispute in the Cayman Islands between the son of the Portuguese Eurojust representative and Rui Pinto was settled out of court before publication of the Football Leaks data. In addition, it stated that Morais Leitão was not involved in any of the proceedings leading up to Pinto's arrest in Budapest.

The investigators who attended the Eurojust meeting didn't wish to make any public statement about their Portuguese counterpart's apparent conflict of interest. But some did point out that the concealment of such a close familial relationship in such a sensitive case represented a massive breach of trust -- particularly given that any details leaked from the case could be seriously damaging.

"We find this fact quite disturbing," Pinto's team of lawyers wrote in a brief statement in response to Cluny's familial link. "We'll look at any possible legal implications of it."

Pinto has been forced to wear an ankle bracelet in his Budapest apartment for over five weeks as part of his house arrest. He is expecting a decision soon on the Portuguese authorities' extradition request. Asked about the roles played by Antonio and João Lima Cluny, he answered: "That's Portugal. It will be hard to get a fair trial there."

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