Operation ‘Off Side’ – the largest investigation in the history of Portugal’s tax department – swooped into action yesterday (Wednesday) searching football clubs and the properties of agents, players and high-profile bosses.
Among ‘big names’ now saddled with ‘arguido’ status (meaning they are now official suspects in the eyes of the law) are Benfica mogul Luís Filipe Vieira, Porto club boss Pinto da Costa and ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes – best-known for representing Portugal’s footballing icon Cristiano Ronaldo.
The focus of ‘Off Side’ are suspicions of multi-million tax fraud and money-laundering via player transfer deals and ‘other deals’, including agents’ commissions, since 2015.
Sticking to the rules of ‘secrecy of justice’, Associated Press reported that more than 180 police officers, 101 tax inspectors and 16 magistrates took part in yesterday’s searches of 76 homes and businesses premises (among them lawyers’ offices).
Citing a statement coming out of the Attorney General’s office, AP essentially said there were ‘no further details’.
But other papers have ‘gone to town’ with the minutiae purportedly under investigation, suggesting ‘Off Side’ has been five years in the making.
Writes tabloid Correio da Manhã today, “after five years of collecting evidence and cross-referencing data, the AT tax authority advanced on the largest operation in its history.
“Everything began at 8.30am, and some of the searches only ended at 9pm.
“We talking here about five autonomous processes (meaning cases). Three of them are with Judge Carlos Alexandre” – apparently responsible for investigations into Jorge Mendes and his lawyer Osório de Castro and probes into the activities of Braga and Sporting football clubs.
The other two cases centre on deals within Benfica and FC Porto – two of Portugal’s most famous clubs run by men who are rarely out of the news for various reasons.
Says CM, Alexandre is being helped by the Public Ministry’s section of investigation and prevention of tax frauds (part of DIAP, the department of investigation and penal action), “led by prosecutor Rui Marques who has six other prosecutors helping him”.
By the end of Wednesday, there were 23 individual arguidos (players, sundry football bosses, lawyers and businesspeople) as well as 24 societies, businesses and footballing associations.
Also citing the statement issued by the Attorney General office, ECO online said suspicions are of “actions aimed at avoiding the payment of tax installments due to the Portuguese State via the concealment or alteration of amounts and other acts inherent to these businesses, which are reflected in the determination of the same installments”.
Benfica boss Luís Filipe Vieira has stressed that his club is “very tranquil” as its activity “has been rigorously audited by the competent authorities in scrupulous compliance with the law”.
Ana Gomes, the feisty former MEP who has been on a tireless crusade against corruption – and locked horns in the past with Vieira, has reportedly greeted the news with the observation that authorities “took their time, but it’s better late than never…”
Ms Gomes also said it was thanks to information supplied by whistleblower Rui Pinto that this investigation found its legs.
This is something not borne out by other papers, who suggest AT tax inspectors did approach Pinto’s lawyers, but ended up ‘not using the information’ in their investigation.
ECO online stresses that tax authorities in Spain, France and the UK are collaborating with Portugal in this investigation.
The list of clubs apparently now involved in this probe extends even to the Algarve’s Portimonense (based in Portimão).