Former Watford FC owner Laurence Bassini has described the £3.6 million given to him by the Russo brothers as the price they paid to covertly regain control of the club.
The Stanmore businessman argued at the High Court this week that loan documents relating to the money were “a sham”. He said the Russos saw Watford as a “money machine” and they had been keen to find a way back into the club after falling out with its board.
His comments came as he gave evidences at a High Court trial this week as the Russos sued him for repayment of the money, which they say was given as straightforward loans.
During his testimony, Mr Bassini also alleged the Russos still own 50 per cent of Watford FC with the Pozzo family and were currently orchestrating a “vindictive” campaign against him.
Taking the witness stand on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr Bassini said he met the Russos in early 2011 as he was interested in buying Watford FC.
Talking about Jimmy Russo, Mr Bassini said: “He was a Chelsea fan.” He later added: “Watford was all about money. It was a money machine for him. His aim was what he could make out of it.”
Jimmy Russo (left) with brother Vince at Vicarage Road.
The court was told that during the January meetings Mr Russo and Mr Bassini arranged a deal where there would secretly become 50/50 owners of Watford.
He said Mr Russo suggested they let his company secretary, Robin Williams, and Mr Bassini’s solicitor, Angelo Barrea, find a way to construct the deal.
Mr Bassini said £3.5million transferred to Mr Barrea on February 2, 2011, was from Mr Russo and would eventually buy 50 per cent in his holding company, Watford FC Ltd. He said he held these shares on trust for the Russos as their involvement had to be hidden from the club’s board.
He said he and Mr Russo had shaken hands on this secret arrangement. Mr Bassini added: “I am old school. We shake hands and we have done a deal and as for me I got on with it.
He later added: “It was not a loan. How many times do I have to say that it was a sham?”
Mr Bassini told the judge £135,000 paid by the Russos in April 2011 was the cash they received for their 29.9 per cent Watford FC shares in the takeover.
He said the money was returned to him as they were secret partners and not because he had requested it to help the club’s finance. Mr Bassini said he had enough money to run Watford from the original £3.5million.
Mr Bassini also said Jimmy Russo was behind a ploy to drive up the price of Watford FC to potential buyers in October 2011 by using sham bid letters from his company Valley Grown Salads.
He said: “There was a fellow who was the chairman of QPR, Gianni Paladini, who he (Jimmy Russo) knew very well. He wanted to get a consortium together. Jimmy phoned me and said he was going to do a letter as this guy can get money as there are Formula 1 people involved, and that to show him these letters as we could get £20 million from him for it and that’s how these letters arrived.”
Former QPR chairman Gianni Paladini.
The court heard earlier in the case in April 2012 Mr Bassini had agreed to pay interest on the originally interest-free sums now totalling £3.6 million as no repayments had been made.
Mr Bassini denied this and described a note by the secretary of Mr Russo’s company, Robin Williams, recording a conversation with him about interest as a “fabrication”.
Mr Bassini also accused Mr Russo of later going behind his back and arranging a deal for the Italian Pozzo family to take over Watford FC, which they did in June 2012 for £550,000.
Mr Bassini said he did not do well out of the deal and Watford FC still owed him £2 million.
He said: “ In the last two or three weeks the club had a player, Adrian Mariappa, for £2 million I could have sold him. I had Sean Murray and could have sold him for £2.5 to £3 million, and there was another player for a million.
Sean Murray in action for the Hornets this season against Brighton.
“I could have had £6 million. I could have had half and they could have had half. But I’d had enough of all the negotiations, the threats. I wanted to go. I could have sold players and had half the money. But I did the right thing by everybody.
“They (the Russos) own Watford as 50 per cent partners. They stopped me getting the (Yellow and Red Lion) pub, which was part of the deal. We should have got £18 million for the club, I got £550,000. I should have got the pub and also what I should have been paid.”
Nicholas Stewart QC, The Russos’ barrister, then asked: “In your statement you are convinced the Russo brothers are in cahoots with the Pozzo family, the purchasers of the club?”
Mr Bassini said: “I honestly believed they are 50 per cent shareholders in the club.”
New owners Giampaolo Pozzo (left) with son Gino Pozzo (centre) and Watford FC Technical Director, Gian Luca Nani (right) at Vicarage Road.
Mr Stewart replied: “That is all fanciful nonsense. You have not got a shred of evidence to support that ridiculous allegation.”
Mr Bassini later said he had a tape recording of conversations with Jimmy Russo that proved his side of the story.
When asked where it was, he replied: “At this moment in time I can’t find it as I have moved house. I think it is in Angelo Barrea’s office but I don’t talk to him so I can’t get anything from him at the moment.”
The judge is due to return a judgement on the case in the coming weeks.