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While we normally take anything onefootbal.com has to say with a grain of salt, this article is well-referenced. What a rat!

ANALYSIS Benfica cash trail leads to Bath

Tuesday 2nd April 2002

By The Big Issue South West's Phil Chamberlain and Luke Gosset

Joao Vale e Azevedo loved the good life. The flamboyant former president of Benfica enjoyed all the trappings that came with such a powerful job. Now all that has changed.

After months of house arrest, he is currently facing 14 fraud charges in the unedifying surroundings of a criminal court in Lisbon. The astute former lawyer is having to call upon all his skills as the jury hears stories about a luxury flat in central London and a yacht, named Lucky Me, that he allegedly bought with millions of pounds siphoned from the club.

Azevedo has denied any wrong-doing but is only the latest in a long list of European football bosses to be accused of dipping into the river of cash poured in by faithful fans and television companies.

However this financial trail leads, in part, to a very unusual location. Leaked documents obtained by The Big Issue South West link two companies in Bath in South-West England to the Azevedo regime.

The companies are based at the same address by picturesque Pulteney Bridge and are run by the same man. Paul Crew is sole shareholder and company secretary of Channel Trading and Pulteney Bridge Consulting Ltd.

Set up in 1997 the latter is a management consultancy, the former simply described as having 'other functions'. Crew would only describe the companies as "providing services to clients".

Accounts filed at Companies House, the official register of UK companies, show these firms have had modest turnovers of only a few thousands pounds a year - amounts so small in fact that Crew is allowed to audit his own accounts.

But leaked invoices reveal that these tiny firms were in line for multi-million pound payments from Benfica. At the end of 1999 Channel Trading sent Benfica a £1.45 million bill for introducing Benfica to companies who could exploit the club's planned, but as yet unbuilt, stadium. It also billed them US$2.5 million for managing an agreement between the club and the team's coaches.

At the same time Pulteney Bridge sent Benfica a £450,000 bill for providing "consultancy services related to pay per view system in the European football market".

It also invoiced the club £220,000 for drawing up plans to capitalise on the Benfica brand. And there was a further invoice of £850,000 for work on preparing a joint stock company. All of the monies were due to be paid into the firm's bank accounts held at Barclays Bank in Bath.

Ten months after the bills were sent, Azevedo lost his presidency of the club. The new Benfica management began an investigation into the black hole in the club's accounts which they believe ran into millions of escudos.

As part of that investigation Benfica asked Crew's companies what they had been doing for the club. The firms sent back two letters in December 2000 saying that Channel Trading had received no money for its work, while Pulteney Bridge had only recovered part of what it was owed - about £200,000.

It is possible that the money paid arrived too late to be registered in the firms' latest accounts but more of the invoices raised appear not to have been logged.

By law limited companies have to file accurate accounts which are open to public inspection at Companies House, although a CH spokesman admitted that this was done on a "matter of trust".

An independent expert from the Association of Chartered Accountants said that any invoices raised would normally be listed under turnover or, later, as a bad debt. He also said the amount invoiced for would have pushed both firms' turnovers above £1 million, meaning they would have to file audited accounts.

Crew, who lives in Clutton near Bristol, has refused to comment on his firms' relationships with Benfica, citing client confidentiality, but has vigorously denied filing inaccurate accounts. Companies House has now launched an investigation into financial reporting at the two firms.

The multi-million pound business with Benfica was certainly a coup for the companies which have often had more directors than employees. Company directors are legally responsible for ensuring that firms operate within the law - the directors of Pulteney Bridge Consulting and Channel Trading have either strenuously denied wrong-doing or not responded for requests for a comment.

Martin Palmer was one of the first directors for both companies and was on the board during the period covered by these invoices. He presently works at the Bristol office of Jordans, a firm that provides business services to companies, as director of its international division.

He refused to comment on why two small companies should suddenly win multi-million pound contracts but said the firms always carried out their activities in accordance with the law and filed accurate accounts. Crew backed Palmer's claims. He said Palmer, who left the firm two years ago, had been speaking with its authority when he said that nothing untoward had happened.

Crew added: "Obviously the directors of the companies take the allegations seriously and they are doing their own research. I think it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage. The company is looking at what you have said. We have decided to say nothing else."

The two current directors have not responded to requests for information about the firms' activities.

Crew said that The Big Issue South West will be the "first to know" the results of its own investigation. And he added: "I strongly stress that the accounts and returns for these two companies as filed at Companies House are correct."

Back in Portugal, Azevedo has denied that he embezzled funds from club accounts, declaring he was always a "servant" of Benfica. "I admit I moved Benfica cash around but it was a money-saving measure. Funds are often transferred from account to account. It's an ordinary procedure and I have documents to prove it."

Investigations by the Portuguese newspaper O Jogo have uncovered a number of companies based both in Britain and in off-shore tax havens used by Azevedo while in charge of Benfica.

Current president Manuel Vilarinho has said he is sure that Azevedo used the club's finances for his personal benefit. He confronted his predecessor in a live TV debate saying: "Your presidency was disastrous."

This season has seen Benfica's rivals make all the running in the championship. Denied glory on the pitch, fans are left with the action in the Lisbon courtroom. For them it's the only game in town.

The Big Issue South West is published on Monday April 1.
 
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