Josep Maria Bartomeu has been arrested alongside two senior Barcelona officials in the latest development in a police investigation less than a week before the club’s presidential elections end, a Spanish news source has said.
Catalonian cops have raided the offices of the Spanish football giants and reportedly swooped on ex-president Bartomeu, who resigned at the end of October along with the club’s entire board of directors.
Local force the Mossos d’Esquadra are said to have taken action – moving in just six days before the long-awaited presidential elections to permanently replace Bartomeu end – on grounds of suspected unfair administration, corruption between individuals and money laundering.
Employees were told to leave the club’s headquarters on Monday and have been unable to access their workplace while officers search for evidence, with Nacion Digital reporting that CEO Oscar Grau and head of legal services Roman Gomez Ponti were also arrested.
FC Barcelona confirm police have entered the club’s premises today. Reports in Spain say the club’s CEO and head of legal have been arrested. More likely to emerge throughout the day.
— tariq panja (@tariqpanja) March 1, 2021
The report also claimed that other buildings were being searched as part of a case that it said had “erupted” over a high-profile row last year, when a company was allegedly hired to undermine club legends including Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique online, as well as former players and presidential candidates.
Barcelona strongly denied any involvement in the allegations and dropped a deal they held with I3 Ventures, the company behind the social media accounts involved.
Bartomeu had been due to leave the club next month but departed prematurely in the face of an imminent vote of confidence that was driven by a petition carrying 20,000 signatures. His resignation was unrelated to the social media scandal, which has been dubbed “Barcagate”.
An external audit later cleared Barca of any wrongdoing, concluding that it did not pay over the odds for services with I3 and was not guilty of corruption on a financial level.
Police have kept the case open with their own investigation, first visiting the club’s offices last June to search for documents relating to the allegations.
A spokesman for the force told ESPN that arrests were being made while declining to name the individuals concerned. “We are in the process of carrying out an operation at the moment with agents from the financial crimes unit,” they said.
Final candidates Victor Font, Joan Laporta and Toni Freixa are vying to become the next president, with the ballot delayed from 24 January because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Five-times Champions League winners Barcelona are enduring a turbulent period, highlighted by a report at the end of last month that showed the club is around $1.2 billion in debt.
Stars including all-time top scorer Messi agreed to take a collective wage cut of around $132 million in November, but there are fears that Barca could even face bankruptcy despite having the most commercial clout of any club in the world.
More turmoil materialized in January, when Messi’s contract details were reported by a newspaper amid rumors that the iconic striker’s deal had been leaked as an inside job.
A club statement categorically denied any involvement in the publication of the papers, expressed “absolute support” for Messi against any “attempt to discredit his image” and pledged to take “appropriate legal action” over any damage caused by the revelations.