Rui Pinto is wandering past cows and pigs at an isolated spot not far from Lisbon. Two police officers are following the 31-year-old as he walks with two reporters from DER SPIEGEL. The man behind the whistleblower platform Football Leaks is currently in a witness-protection program, which is why there are strict rules regarding what can be written about his current location. "My life is still at risk," Pinto says.
Yet he still appears to be in good spirits. For the first time in a year and a half, he is a free man. And his chances of getting acquitted in his upcoming trial in Lisbon have recently risen.
Our walk together with Pinto outside of Lisbon took place on the day before last Sunday's Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, which was played in the Portuguese capital. It was to be the first of two interviews. Like no one else before him, Pinto was responsible for shining a spotlight on the dark side of professional football. Even as the football industry celebrates the pinnacle of the club season in Benfica Lisbon’s stadium, Pinto is living just a few kilometers away under police protection in a safe house.
Pinto has made numerous influential enemies in recent years. He shared more than 70 million confidential documents - a total of 3.4 terabytes of data – with DER SPIEGEL and its partners in the journalism consortium European Investigative Collaborations (EIC). Since 2016, more than a thousand articles have been written based on that data, some of which had serious legal implications. Cristiano Ronaldo was handed a suspended sentence for tax evasion and had to pay around 20 million euros. Some of the most important sports agents in the world are still being investigated for tax violations and money laundering. The Football Leaks documents have even created problems for FIFA President Gianni Infantino, and Swiss public prosecutors are investigating him.
Thus far, though, only a single person has landed in prison as a result of Football Leaks. Rui Pinto himself.
He has been accused of hacking and of attempted extortion, with his trial slated to begin next Friday. Back in December, Pinto discussed his rather bleak prospects in an interview with DER SPIEGEL, including a possible prison sentence of up to 25 years. But one reason for his improved confidence is a deal he has reached with the Portuguese judiciary. Pinto has granted access to his greatest treasure: He opened up eight encrypted hard drives containing 17.5 terabytes of information.
Strict Security Measures
It's not easy to meet up with Pinto these days. DER SPIEGEL sent him repeated requests for an interview over the past several months, but Pinto declined them all without offering an explanation. He was in house arrest and was not allowed to tell anyone that he was engaged in negotiations with the judiciary. He may now officially be free, but he must consult the police each time he wants to go outside so that the potential risks can be discussed. For his meeting with DER SPIEGEL, Pinto's guardians have imposed strict security measures. They provided the address of a holiday apartment, where the meeting on the day of the Champions League final can take place.
Late in the evening on the day prior to our first meeting, Pinto sends an address via an encrypted messenger service. It leads to the parking lot of a supermarket located far away from Lisbon. "Send me the license plate number of your rental car," he asks, and names a time for the meeting.
The next day, a car appears at the parking lot just a few minutes after the agreed to time. Two men wearing masks roll down their windows, nod briefly indicating they should be followed. On the drive, they make several sudden turns, apparently to shake off any potential tails. When the car finally comes to a stop at a remote rest stop, Pinto opens the door and jumps out of the back seat. He is wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and, of course, a mask.
A former history student who emigrated to Budapest in 2015, Pinto has been accused by Portuguese prosecutors of hacking into servers and stealing sensitive data from football clubs, law firms, investigators and sports agencies.
Since the very beginning of the Football Leaks project, Pinto has insisted that he doesn't see himself as a hacker. Last December, though, he told DER SPIEGEL, "I fully accept that, from the standpoint of Portuguese law, some of my acts may be considered illegal." In his statement of defense submitted to the court at the beginning of this week, he elaborated on what that might have meant. Pinto regrets having violated the law in order to access data. He said he was convinced that the data would help him uncover serious crimes and that he didn't adequately reflect on the consequences of his activities. "You can ask me all the questions you want," Pinto says. "But before the trial, I won't be able to answer everything. The court is the right place to explain my position."
The next day, Pinto shows up at a secret apartment several hours before the start of the Champions League final. It is a sparsely furnished room with a double bed, two recliners and a small television in the basement of a holiday home. Pinto sits down in one of the easy chairs and looks back on the last year and a half. He speaks of harassment and "psychological torture" in a Budapest prison, where he was locked away following his arrest in January 2019. Hungary extradited him two months later to Portugal, where he was put in solitary confinement for over half a year.
Pinto is proud of the fact that he managed to get through that time. "After leaving isolation, I sometimes had problems concentrating," he says. It felt like a huge door had opened in front of him, he says, and he had trouble interacting with groups of people. In April, Pinto was released into house arrest and has officially been a free man since August 7. A commission made up of judges, state prosecutors and Justice Ministry officials continue to believe that he is in danger. Pinto didn't just ruffle the feathers of football stars and clubs, but also those of state leaders in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Angola. Still, he says, "I can sleep pretty well at night." He can live with the risk, he says, since his main goal was uncovering transgressions.
Pinto skirts around questions about how he accessed the data. He says his role was merely that of searching for, collecting and analyzing information pertaining to violations before passing them along to journalists or criminal investigators. He doesn't view himself as a hacker, but as a whistleblower.
There is also another way of looking at it. Pinto’s greatest weakness in court is the accusation of attempted extortion. It calls into question Pinto’s supposedly lofty intentions. "I regret specifically one thing: having this contact with Nélio Lucas," says Pinto. Indeed, it was a legal complaint filed by sports marketing agency Doyen and its manager Lucas that led to the current trial. Pinto allegedly hacked the company’s IT systems in 2015. In an email, he demanded a sum of "between 500,000 euros and 1 million” in exchange for not publishing the documents. He also contacted a lawyer who then met with Lucas and his legal adviser at a gas station in Lisbon to discuss the deal. Police secretly recorded the conversations. DER SPIEGEL and the EIC reported on these allegations back in 2016.
"I was naive back then," says Pinto. He says he wanted to test how far Lucas and Doyen would go to prevent the publication of compromising documents.
"I Did Everything for the Public"
A few days ago, the Portuguese daily Público published an article quoting from an email that could challenge Pinto’s portrayal. The article claims that in the mail, he suggested to his former lawyer, who is also now facing legal proceedings himself, that the money being demanded from Doyen could be funneled through tax havens like Malta or Cyprus. Was Pinto really considering making use of such opaque channels? This is exactly the same accusation he himself has been making all this time against the football industry.
"I will explain in court when deemed necessary," Pinto says. He says he broke off the negotiations before any money changed hands. As such, Pinto claims he didn’t commit a crime.
Within the industry, Doyen had a reputation for being a particularly dubious company. The sports marketing firm purchased shares in transfer rights from professional football players and then profited significantly from the later sales of players. At some point, the setup, known as Third-Party Ownership (TPO) went too far even for FIFA, and the global football governing body banned the model.
In Malta, where Doyen Sports is registered, the Financial Services Authority fined the company for illegal lending. Spanish authorities are investigating Doyen Sports and Lucas on suspicions of tax evasion based on the publication of Football Leaks documents. Two other managers have also been accused of money laundering. Portuguese authorities froze 8 million euros in a Doyen account in spring 2019 because they were concerned about a planned transfer of millions of euros to the tax haven St. Lucia. An investigation is still ongoing. Lucas and Doyen are not making any public statements about the allegations.
Officials have questions about the origins of the billions Doyen has invested in the football industry. Pinto’s documents suggest that the Doyen network’s capital came from Kazakh oligarchs who raked in millions in the raw materials sector after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tevfik Arif, the father of one of the former Doyen bosses, engaged in real estate business with Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence even highlighted Arif’s contacts with Russia and Turkey in a report last week, stating: "Information obtained by the committee suggests he was involved in Russian organized crime, money laundering and human trafficking dating back to at least 2000.” In response to a request for comment, a spokeswoman for Arif denied all the allegations.
Football Leaks exposed how professional football doesn’t care one iota about the sources of money for salaries, commissions and transfer fees.
A Deal with the Authorities
Pinto has now handed this data over to the Portuguese judicial system. The fact that he is cooperating so extensively with investigators will likely also strengthen his position in court. But how did a deal take shape?
Pinto says he has always wanted to work with the Portuguese, but only on the condition that the documents contained on his hard drives not be used against him. For a long time, the Public Prosecutor’s Office didn’t want to agree to the deal. But pressure grew on the investigators. In January, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), whose members include Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, published the findings of its research into Isabel dos Santos, the Angolan who is Africa’s richest woman. The "Luanda Leaks” reporting traced a kleptocratic system of corruption and money laundering in Angola. The documents came from Rui Pinto. "It's disgusting that Portugal became the laundromat for Angolan elites,” Pinto says. He claims the rulers enriched themselves even as the country suffered under extreme poverty.
Dos Santos denies the allegations. But her system collapsed nonetheless. After previously calling him a hacker, a pirate or a spy, the Portuguese media suddenly came to view Pinto as a valuable whistleblower. It also forced the Portuguese authorities to admit that the data he is holding can be used to uncover misconduct in many different areas.
The problem they had was that they couldn’t get to the documents without his help. The hard drives have passwords that are more than 40 characters long, and each drive had been encrypted individually. Pinto threatened that dos Santos was only the tip of the iceberg and that there were still many more irregularities that could be exposed through his data – also in Portugal.
It appears to be better for investigators to be working together with Pinto. The director of the law enforcement agency has even praised Pinto for his help. When asked if he thinks it is likely he will be sent to jail again, Pinto says, "I don’t think so.” His defense team is comprised of three lawyers: Portuguese attorney Francisco Teixeira da Mota and his daughter Luísa and French lawyer and whistleblower expert William Bourdon. They want to call 45 witnesses, including American whistleblower Edward Snowden. And they have already had success with petitions claiming possible bias on the part of two out of three judges who had been assigned by lottery to the trial. After showing on Facebook that he’s an avid Benfica Lisbon fan and clicking the "like” button beneath an article critical of Pinto, the presiding judge who had been selected for the trial got dismissed from the proceedings as well as the second judge, who had been represented by one of the current plaintiffs’ lawyers in another case.
The interview has already gone on for several hours by the time the Champions League final begins. Pinto wants to step out and get some fresh air as the players with Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain walk out onto the pitch. After he returns, he follows the final pitting the two Qatar-sponsored clubs against each other with one eye, while at the same time chatting with his girlfriend. "Football is about the fans, the real atmosphere,” says Pinto, "not this plastic event atmosphere where money dominates everything.”
He is slowly turning away from football, the sport for which he took all these risks. These days, he’s more passionate about issues like investigating corruption, fraud and tax evasion. Pinto says he used his time in jail to read numerous investigative exposé books, including ones about the abuse of power by states.
After the match, Pinto drives off into the darkness with his bodyguards to an undisclosed location, where he plans to prepare for his trial. He says he’s not concerned yet with what comes next. "I want to solve my legal situation first,” Pinto says. "I want to get acquitted.”