Mediapart have today provided more detail relating to the ongoing Swiss legal investigation in to alleged corruption committed by PSG President Nasser Al Khelaifi.
Swiss prosecutors are pursuing the Qatari over a charge of “private corruption”, with the outlet in question reporting to have obtained confidential documents revealing how Nasser Al Khelaifi organised the financing of a luxury villa that happened to be occupied by the former number two at FIFA, Jérôme Valcke and occurred at the same time that a generous TV contract was secured with the football governing body at a time when Qatar’s 2022 World Cup hosting was under threat.
This story takes us to Sardinia, on October 13th 2017. Italian police raided and seized a sumptuous 438-square-metre villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Jérôme Valcke, ex-Vice President of FIFA, was the tenant. The day before, French police from the anti-corruption unit had searched a building in Boulogne-Billancourt which plays home to the headquarters of both PSG and BeIN Sports. These are also the offices of their president: Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
Since then, Swiss authorities, who are leading this operation, have put Nasser Al-Khelaifi and Jérôme Valcke on trial for “private corruption”. Mediapart claim that the Swiss Public Ministry of the Confederation (MPC) suspects Al Khelaifi to have financed Valcke’s Sardinia villa simultaneously as another contract was being signed by the two men: the purchase of the World Cup rights for BeIN in a $480m deal. This is one of two cases of corruption currently being pursued against Al Khelaifi, the other being undertaken in France relating to his winning the rights for Qatar to host the World Athletics Championships.
Documentation from the Swiss prosecutor seen by Mediapart alleges that Al Khelaifi’s initial plan was to gift Valcke the Sardinia villa. However, Al-Khelaifi eventually changed tact and bought it via a company register in Qatar, then resold it to a friend of his, who rented it to the FIFA Secretary General on some unusual terms.
Mediapart also allege that there is a possible link between this series of events and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, whose ability to win the bid was being investigated at the time for being corrupt by authorities in France, Switzerland and the United States. French investigators are intensely interested in a supposed deal proposed by Nasser Al Khelaifi to FIFA just before the vote on 2nd December 2010: BeIN promised to buy the TV rights for the World Cup for $300m, plus an additional $100m bonus if Qatar won the rights to the 2022 edition. Documentation uncovered by the European Investigation Collaboration team suggests that the extension of his TV rights contract, which occurred in 2014 at the same time that Valcke received his villa, could have been a quid-pro-quo for FIFA to accept that the Qatar World Cup would be held in winter.
Al-Khelaifi’s Swiss lawyer, Grégoire Mangeat, refused to respond to questions from Mediapart, preferring to give statements to Le Monde instead, during which he stated that his client “strongly contests having committed the slightest infraction” and “denounces continuous media manipulation”. Before adding on Valcke’s villa: “Mr Al-Khelaifi will simply repeat here that he is not and has never been the owner of the villa.”
Jérôme Valcke in the meantime “formally contests the idea of having received any undue compensation.” His lawyer, Patrick Hunziker, has indicated to Mediapart that he was neither the negotiator nor the decision-maker on the contracts with BeIN and that he “has not influenced the taking of these decision in a manner contrary to his duties.”
It all began in the summer of 2013. After 6 years as FIFA’s number two, Jérôme Valcke was rich: he was being paid €120,000 a month and received €15m in bonuses. The former Canal + journalist was living a life of luxury. He abused a system of private jet trips at the expense of FIFA, one of these instances resulted in him being suspended in 2015, then banned for 10 years and indicted by the Swiss federal prosecutor. As revealed by the Panama Papers, Jérôme Valcke created an discreet offshore company in the British Virgin Islands in July 2013 called Umbelina, to enact the purchase of a $2.8m 32-metre yacht, which he renamed Ornella (the name of his wife) and renovated it for an estimated €15m.
The yacht Ornella was bought in 2013, and the offshore company with which he used to do so was the same vehicle through which he rented the Villa Bianca, which is central to this case. Valcke is understood to have been fixated with the idea of anchoring his yacht in Porto Cervo, a village occupied by the super-rich in northeastern Sardinia, which attracts international jet-setters in summer. Ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owned the Villa Certosa, which was located next door to Valcke’s targeted prize.
In 2013, the Villa Bianca was owned by Lele Mora, a businessman heavily implicated in the infamous Bunga Bunga parties with Prime Minister Berlusconi. The Bianca has 13 rooms and a swimming pool. On August 30th 2013, Jérôme Valcke signed a proposal to buy the villa he wanted for €5m, a bid that was accepted at the beginning of September. He could not contain his joy in writing to someone close to him about this per documentation obtained by Mediapart: “The house in Porto Cervo has been confirmed to me tonight. I own Porto Cervo!”
On October 2nd, Valcke wrote to a financial institution that he “will finalise the acquisition… without credit because of exceptional cash flow that covers the cost of the acquisition, the €5m.” A bill of sale was drafted and dated November 8th, the day scheduled for the signing. It was Valcke’s wife, Ornella (they have since divorced) who was assigned in the documentation as the owner of her house. According to her lawyer, it was because she was of Italian nationality.
On 30th October, a week before the signing, Jérôme Valcke writes and prints out a document intended for Nasser Al Khelaifi. On this document, according to Mediapart, are instructions for him to pay for the villa.
“You need to sign,” wrote Valcke. “… the special power of attorney, to give the lawyer a mandate to sign for the deed of sale in your place… You don’t need to sign, you just need to see it. Everything is ok.”
He then further adds: “A transfer of €5,070,000 must be made early next week to the account of the notary… It is also necessary to make a transfer of €200,000 on the account of… for the expenses of the agency.”
But at the last moment, the sale to Jérôme Valcke’s wife was cancelled. It was replaced by a more discreet instrument, and probably a less risky one at that. On December 31st 2013, Nasser Al Khelaifi bought the Villa Bianca through a company called Golden Home Real Estate, a Qatari company that he owns and to which he has lent €5m. The PSG boss then transferred his shares in the company to a 15-year-long friend, who repaid the loan and loaned the property to Valcke.
The friend in question was a man called Abdelkader Bessedik, a French jurist residing in Qatar. His brother Ahmed, a BeIN Sports employee, is a very close advisor of Al Khelaifi’s: “The shadow of his shadow,” have written L’Équipe Magazine in the past to describe him.
Abdelkader Bessedik’s lawyer affirms that it was his brother who advised him to buy the villa because it was “a good business deal.” This individual’s counsel explains that Al Khelaifi bought the villa first purely owing to an administrative problem: “My client could not make the acquisition of this property via a Qatari company without having received authorisation. This came just after the sale and therefore he immediately became owner (of the Golden Home Real Estate company).”
Jérôme Valcke has indicated to Mediapart via his lawyer that Al Khelaifi’s temporary ownership of this villa was a mere coincidence. He affirms that “it was never a question” that Al Khelaifi would finance the purchase of such a villa for him, which Valcke had hoped to buy with a FIFA bonus, before being forced to give it up. He says that he only learned after the fact that the man whom he finally rented the house from was “someone close to Mr Al-Khelaifi.”
Valcke rented the villa through his Umbelina offshore company based in the British Virgin Islands. The nature of the lease, as revealed by Le Monde, was peculiar to say the least. It was signed on 1st July 2014, three months after Valcke had already moved in. The rent was set at €96,000 a year, but a clause was included that allowed Valcke to deduct operating costs of the villa from the overall total as well as the purchase of any new furniture.
Abdelkader Bessedik’s lawyer, Pierre-Dominique Schupp, has indicated that his client first reached a verbal agreement with Valcke, authorising him to occupy the premises in exchange for payment of “running costs and a few expenses.” This was formalised into a contract only later – the two men say that Valcke paid what Bessedik was owed until he vacated the villa in 2015, the year he was suspended by FIFA.
The prosecutors of the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office suspect this dealing to have ties to another contract, which Valcke and Al-Khelaifi were involved with at the same time: the purchase by BeIN of the television rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups for $480m.
In the summer of 2013, Qatar was facing two problems, which were calling into question their 2022 World Cup hosting ambitions. Michael Garcia, the Chief Investigator of the FIFA Ethics Committee, was conducting an extensive investigation into the alleged corruption behind the award of the 2022 competition to Qatar. The second issue, was that the federation had still not been convinced about moving the competition to winter. Everyone knew that if Qatar 2022 were to go ahead, it could not be played in summer, where temperatures average at 50 degrees centigrade. The longer that FIFA took over the latter issue, the more likely that a different location would step in – moving the World Cup to winter does not suit anyone: it has played havoc with club competition scheduling already and it would also likely bring in less revenue.
Valcke, despite his denials, was at the heart of this thorny issue. At a meeting of the FIFA Finance Committee at the end of 2013, he explained that “the date of the event will be crucial for all television rights contracts, because several major events take place between November and February, such as winter sports and the NFL Super Bowl.”
On August 30th 2013, Valcke signed the purchase proposal for the Villa Bianca. In September, he flew to Doha aboard a private jet chartered by FIFA for more than €100,000 for a business meeting with the Emir of Qatar himself.
On October 3rd 2013, at a meeting of the FIFA Finance Committee, a member is understood to have asked Valcke whether the Emir was ready to compensate FIFA for the loss of income likely related to moving the 2022 World Cup from summer to winter. Valcke answered that he mentioned this to representatives of Qatar, and that whilst the Emir does not want to pay directly, FIFA could get the money via “Qatari commercial partners, asking for bonuses from them in case the competition is moved from summer to winter.” Valcke added that Qatar and FIFA have agreed to “cooperate positively” to solve the issue.
A month and a half later, in November 2013, FIFA drafted a contract to sell BeIN Sports the TV rights for the World Cups in 2026 and 2030 for the Middle East, in exchange for $480m. Valcke announced the good news to FIFA’s Finance Committee on December 4th.
There were several strange quirks to this contract. FIFA did not undergo a bidding process for these rights, which is common practice in order to incite a bidding war. There after all other sports channels operating in the Middle East. Two sources close to FIFA have told Mediapart that it was also highly unusual to sell such rights more than 10 years in advance of the competitions actually taking place. Generally, FIFA can earn more money by selling them closer to the time.
FIFA’s own lawyers, who reviewed the draft contract late in November 20134, pointed to the same thing, per Swiss prosecutorial documentation, citing “the very long duration of the agreement leaves us open to legal and regulatory risks.”
On top of that, there the highly elevated fee. The previous deal was €300m for two earlier World Cups, plus a $100m bonus if Qatar obtained the hosting country status for 2022. For the 2026 and 2030 competitions, such a bonus was of course not necessary as they had already won the rights to host in 2022.
The contract was ratified by FIFA’s Executive Committee on 21st March 2014. It was signed on behalf of FIFA by Valcke himself and for BeIN Sports by PSG President Nasser Al Khelaifi. Two months later, Valcke signed a contract to loan the Villa Bianca. Coincidentally, FIFA shortly thereafter took two decisions in Qatar’s favour. In September 2014, FIFA refused to publish the report on alleged corruption in the 2022 World Cup bidding process written by Michael Garcia, who resigned in December. Following this development, FIFA President Sepp Blatter pronounced that there was no reason to question the decision to give this World Cup to Qatar.
On February 24th 2015, a special committee recommended that the 2022 World Cup should be held in winter, a decision that was ratified seven months later. All very coincidental. Legal representation of all principal actors attest that no wrongdoing was committed. The Swiss prosecutor is not so sure.
Qatar continued to pamper Valcke – in February 2015, during a trip to Doha, he received a Cartier watch, worth €40k, as a gift. Al-Khelaifi’s lawyer claims that he had no part in this decision allegedly made by the Qatari government.
In September 2015, Valcke was suspended by FIFA. Per Mediapart, Valcke stopped renting the villa in the same year. Abdelkader Bessedik, Al Khelaifi’s friend, in March 2017 transferred the Golden Home Real Estate company from Qatari to Italian jurisdiction. After Valcke’s departure, it has since and continues to be rented to rich holidaymakers. But for two years between 2015 and 2017, Villa Bianca was empty.