Former Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu has been conditionally released on Tuesday after appearing before a judge investigating last year’s “Barcagate” scandal.
Bartomeu and his former advisor Jaume Masferrer exercised their right not to speak when they were questioned by the judge following a night in jail, Barcelona court said in a statement.
Police arrested the pair along with two other club officials, and searched Barcelona’s stadium, on Monday as part of a probe into allegations that the club carried out a defamation campaign against current and former players who were critical of Bartomeu. The scandal was dubbed ‘Barcagate’.
Spanish radio station Cadena Ser claimed in February 2020 that Barca covered up inflated payments to a company called I3 Ventures which it had hired to boost the image of the club on social media.
Part of the social media campaign included criticising current and former players like Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez, and iconic coach Pep Guardiola.
Messi once described the controversy as “strange” in an interview with Catalan newspaper, Mundo Deportivo.
Cadena Ser claimed Barca made its payments to I3 Ventures in smaller, separate amounts to avoid the club’s financial controls.
Emili Rousaud, who resigned as Barcelona vice-president in March last year, in an interview with RAC1 at the time said;
If the auditors tell us the cost of these services is 100,000 euros and we have paid one million, it means someone has had their hand in the till.
The club took legal action against him. He was among six Barca executives to leave their posts last year, with a joint letter citing the scandal as a key issue needing to be resolved.
On Tuesday, the Barcelona court handling the case said the investigating judge wanted to question Bartomeu and Masferrer as part of an investigation opened in May 2020 into the suspected crimes of false administration and business corruption.
Reacting to the allegations, Bartomeu once said I3 Ventures was hired only to monitor posts on social media, stressing:
Let one thing be clear. To the question: Have we commissioned the monitoring of social networks? The answer is yes.
To the question: Have we commissioned to discredit people or institutions through social networks? The answer is no and we will take action against all those who accuse us of that.
Bartomeu also announced an internal audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which cleared the club of financial corruption in July but found that “internal approval protocols were not respected” when the contract was awarded to I3 Ventures.
Amid this, Bartomeu resigned in October, avoiding a vote of no confidence triggered after more than 20,000 club members signed a petition against him.
His departure came in the same month Barcelona announced losses of 97 million euros ($114 million) for last season and debts that had more than doubled to 488 million euros.
Bartomeu’s successor is due to be elected on Sunday, when club members will choose between the final three candidates, Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.
Laporta, a former Barcelona president who is the front-runner in the race, said the arrests “diminish the reputation of the club”.
On his part, Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman on Tuesday said the arrests were “not good” for the image of the 26-time Spanish champions.
We have to wait to see what happens. I feel bad for them, Bartomeu for me has always been an exceptional person.
On his part, La Liga president Javier Tebas, wasked if he felt that affair would hurt the Spanish league’s brand abroad, said;
I don’t think so, the brand La Liga has built in recent years is very strong and it won’t affect it. But it is not good for the reputation of La Liga what happened yesterday, even if it does not affect it.
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