3 Jul 2012

Potential conflicts of interest at the heart of Scottish football

It all makes the clearest possible sense. Running one football club whilst having a financial interest in another is about the clearest potential conflict of interest possible in the business of sport.

Yet Channel 4 News can now reveal such possible potential conflicts are a commonplace within the game, involving key individuals, and it is allowed within the rules of the governing bodies as presently written.

Not only that. In one case this perceived conflict involves none other than the current president of the Scottish Football Association, Campbell Ogilvie, already described as “heavily conflicted” by his own chief executive and currently offering to stand aside if his presence in the job is a problem.

Offering – but not doing so.

Channel 4 News has a Companies House list of Rangers shareholders for 2008 and 2010. They prove, for instance, that the current Airdrie chairman and president of the Scottish Football League, James William Ballantyne, had 568 Rangers shares in 2008 when chairman of Airdrie.

Now, nobody is pretending these shares are worth very much money at all in the vast sea of Rangers shares. People will be interested in the principle of all this, though, not the money.

Let us consider some other high-profile figures – like Mr Ogilvie. He remains president of the Scottish FA, despite that “heavily conflicted” comment from his chief exec. In 2008 a Companies House report showed Mr Ogilvie held 3,505 Rangers shares whilst in senior management at Hearts. That year he became chief executive at Hearts and suddenly transferred his 3,505 Rangers shares to his wife Karolina, who already held 400 – thus giving her 3,905 shares.

And so to the one-time sectarian crooner Donald Findlay. Infamous for leading sectarian singing at an Ibrox function in 1999, he may have been forced out of Rangers over that unfortunate musical issue but he has not left Rangers in so many other ways. By 2010 Companies House records will tell you he held 9,900 Rangers shares whilst Chairman of Cowdenbeath FC.

No doubt there are other examples.

And so to the rulebook. Well, the Scottish Football Association rules state that:

“Except with the prior written consent of the Board, no Member, Associate Member or Official, may at one time either directly or indirectly:-

21.1.1 hold or seek to acquire beneficial ownership of or deal in the shares or securities of another club; or

21.1.2 be a member or shareholder of, or lender in any capacity to, more than one club…”

Along the corridor at Hampden Park, the Scottish Football Association handbook says pretty much the same things. And in the rules there is the rider that owning less than a 3 per cent total share value is OK.

We are talking about way less than 1 – let alone 3 – per cent in these cases.

The rules also state that having family members owning shares means they are treated as associates. That is, you’re all one in the eyes of the SFA and the SFL rulebook. Transferring shares from, say, Campbell Ogilvie to his wife would make no difference at all in law. Presumably Mr Ogilvie knew all this – he’s widely seen as an expert in football regulation.

So it’s a curious tale. What binds these people to their shares, since it cannot be the financial value? Emotion? It is far from clear. And what makes them hang on to them year after year, when doing so clearly suggests a potential conflict of interest to many, regardless of whether or not any rules have been broken?

Jim Ballantyne said everything had been declared to the boards, and in any case the share numbers are absolutely miniscule. He said:

“I see no problem here at all” and “I cleared everything with the boards” and “You are talking about the tiny fragment of one percent of ownership and this involves absolutely no influence whatsoever”.

We say that may well be true, but would it not be sensible to divest all shares in any other club when running a different one, let alone the SFL itself, just in order to avoid any perceived conflict of interest?

“No – not at all. It’s never been raised at any board meeting,” said Mr Ballantyne.

“Well, I’m raising it now’ I said.

“Well, you’re not in football,” he replied. I cannot seriously think that the president of the Scottish Football League believes only football directors can take a view on this – not the fans, not the public and not journalists. But that is what he told Channel 4 News.

And so to Donald Findlay. His case is perhaps the most curious of the lot. There is the perceived conflict of interest in running Cowdenbeath whilst owning almost 10,000 Rangers shares.

We asked Mr Findlay about the shares issue. We received the message back that he is not interested in answering, and a Cowdenbeath messenger said Mr Findlay says: “You can do what you want.” So the world must wait to know whether or not Mr Findlay regards his Rangers as a conflict of interest. If he does, he certainly does not want to talk to us about it.

At the end of the day, what you have here is another spotlight into the cosy, cronyish old world of Scottish Football, which has predictably lumbered into the 21st century only to come close to real collapse through lack of proper oversight and governance.

Many would simply say any sport which allows anyone a financial stake at all in one club whilst running another is a sport badly in need of urgent overhaul.

From these men today, no consideration or comment on the fans, the public, how this might look. Just the usual insouciance when faced with the concept that whether rules are actually broken or not, this hardly conveys a healthy impression of Scottish football.

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