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Russo case 'does not fit' evidence, argues Bassini barrister
Laurence Bassini represented an independent "purchaser under whose wing" the Russo brothers could regain control of Watford FC, according to the Stanmore businessman’s barrister.
Summing up his argument at the High Court on Thursday, Jonathan Crystal, said more than £3.6million paid by the Russos to Mr Bassini before and during his ownership of the club, were the secret cost of that joint ownership.
Mr Bassini denied the sums were loans during a trial over the money last week.
According to Mr Bassini’s case, he met Jimmy and Vince Russo, both former directors at Watford FC, in January 2011 and agreed a scheme to make them secret 50 per cent owners in the club for £3.5 million. He said a loan agreement for the £3.5million, made on February 2, 2011, was merely "a sham" to disguise the transaction from Watford FC board, which had refused to sell the club to the Russos the year before.
Mr Bassini pointed to a deed of trust between the parties, which meant he would hold 50 per cent of the shares in the club on trust for the Russos, as proof the money was for secret joint ownership.
A £135,000 payment to Mr Bassini from the Russos in April 2011, which was the sum the brothers received for their shares in the takeover, was to square the covert 50-50 takeover deal, according to the Stanmore businessman.
Mr Bassini also said two "sham" letters sent from the Russo’s company, Valley Grown Salads, offering to buy the club in late 2011, were part of attempts by both parties to leverage the club’s price to between £20 million and £25 million from potential buyers. The club was eventually sold to the Pozzo family for £550,000 in June 2012.
The Russos argue the money was straight forward loans, with the £3.5million to be used by Mr Bassini as a "working capital facility".
On Thursday, Mr Crystal pointed out that the Russos had been longstanding shareholders of the club’s parent company, Watford Leisure PLC, and held just under 30 per cent of its shares at the time of the Bassini takeover. He also pointed out that the Russo had made a bid to take full control of Watford the year before the Bassini deal.
He said: "He (Jimmy Russo) had kept onto those shares through thick and thin and by January 2011 had held shares for over seven years of at least 20 per cent. Not only was he not letting them go he was trying to get more shares and has told you he offered 3p a share but was rebuffed. He was not impressed by that.
"What we say is that the suggestion that he (Jimmy Russo) was prepared to have no shareholding interest in the football club did not constitute a re-engagement with the club, but a disengagement."
Mr Bassini’s barrister highlighted an email from Mr Russo’s company secretary, Robin Williams, described how the brothers were "enthused" about the prospect of "re-engaging" with the club.
He added: "Enthused is not a word in everyday use. It is evocative. Of course what Mr Williams would have had to believe was that he was enthused with the prospect of returning to Watford by giving up his shareholding. We respectfully submit that that does not hold common sense."
Mr Crystal said both Mr Bassini, who had been made bankrupt in 2007, and the Russos had reasons to want their dealings to remain secret.
Laurence Bassini (right) with former business partner Panos Thomas.
He said: "Your lordship may conclude that the then owners would have been prepared to sell to anybody but the Russos. So Mr Bassini represented for them an independent purchaser and for the Russos represented a purchaser under whose wing they could get joint ownership and control of the football club."
He also argued that if the sham offer letters the Russos provided Mr Bassini to help him sell the club for £20million merely aimed to get their loans back, that it must have been an act of "philanthropy" as they would be helping Mr Bassini earn more than £16million while they merely recouped their £3.6 million.
Mr Crystal concluded that the Russos’ version of events did not fit will all the documents and correspondence between the parties that the court had seen.
He added: "The claimants’ version of what happened: you can’t fit it, try as you might, you can’t say this is a straight forward lender borrower deal for repayment. That would be to completely sweep aside everything they went on. When you begin to dig into what went on, it is not probable there was to be a loan to Mr Bassini, which he was liable to repay."
The judge is due to return his judgement in the coming weeks.
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