By Bob Duncan
Three Rangers fans’ groups have objected to the SPL’s appointment of Glasgow legal firm Harper Macleod to investigate dual contract claims against the Ibrox club’s previous owners, claiming conflict of interest.
Rangers’ use of Employee Benefits Trusts (EBTs) to pay members of staff is currently the subject of a HMRC tax tribunal.
While the courts have yet to rule on the legality of the EBTs, the SPL is investigating whether such earnings contravened its requirement that all earnings should be declared to the national parent body.
A BBC documentary, “Rangers, The Men Who Sold The Jerseys”, found evidence suggesting that 38 Rangers players had received side-letters giving undertakings to fund their sub-trusts with cash.
The SPL has stated that, once Harper Macleod submits its evidence, an independent commission, likely to be made up of foreign nationals, will determine what sanctions, if any, are appropriate. These sanctions could include the stripping of titles won by the oldco from the Rangers newco.
But a joint statement from the Rangers Supporters Assembly, the Rangers Supporters Trust and the Rangers Supporters Association has questioned the process and, in particular, the SPL’s choice of legal agent.
“Harper Macleod have acted for Celtic FC, who would be the main beneficiaries of any finding of guilt,” they state. Indeed, until it was recently removed, they included a testimonial from Celtic CEO Peter Lawell on their website.
“The SPL could have chosen any law firm to carry out this investigation and it was extremely naive of them to appoint a firm with such a close connection to a rival club.”
They urge the football authorities to ensure that the investigation is carried out “with the necessary independence, transparency and integrity”.
In addition to conflict of interest, the statement from the fan groups lists the following three areas of concern:
Prejudicial Media Coverage – “There is a concern that any tribunal appointed to rule on this matter will have been seriously prejudiced by the negative media coverage surrounding it. Several managers and chairmen of SPL clubs have attempted to prejudge the matter in the media over the past few months.
This includes, but is not limited to, giving opinion on what the punishment should be. This has led to a media feeding frenzy which will have been difficult for any potential tribunal member to disregard. We want reassurance on the selection of the tribunal members and confidence in their impartiality.”
Focus on Most Severe Sanction – “We are concerned that, despite the SPL having 18 sanctions available, the only punishment being discussed is the most serious yet no guilt has even been established. This, again, leads to a danger of exerting undue influence on the tribunal members through the media.”
Focus on Rangers – “We would question why there appears to be no on-going investigation into the so-called “Juninho EBT” used by Celtic FC. Our understanding is that Celtic acknowledged that this was not declared to the football authorities as part of their licence application. If this is the case, then why is a tribunal not being set up to look into this?
Did Harper Macleod, who include Celtic amongst their clients, investigate this matter as well? We wish clarity on whether there have been technical breaches at ANY SPL clubs over the past 10 years, with the progress of the investigation and the results being declared.”
According to BBC Scotland, the Parkhead club have previously confirmed that they established one EBT scheme in April 2005, which was for the benefit of Brazilian midfielder Juninho Paulista.
Earlier this year, Rangers’ assets were sold to a group led by Charles Green after Rangers Football Club could not be saved from liquidation.
Green’s company, now known as The Rangers Football Club Ltd, have relaunched the club, who have been placed in Scottish Division Three after the SPL rejected an application by Green to take over Rangers’ share in the top flight.
Rangers manager Ally McCoist has insisted he would “never accept” the club being stripped of any of their titles which were won during the period being investigated.
New owner Charles Green said last week: “As we have proved in the last couple of months we will stand up to any challenges that face Rangers and will continue to fight for the club’s best interests.”
“We believe this is being driven by influential members of the SPL board and recently formed ‘steering committee’ with the most to gain,” added the Rangers fans groups. “We want justice and fairness for all.”