BARCELONA, 13 JUNE: Former Barcelona president Joan Laporta defended Lionel Messi against allegations of tax fraud on Thursday, a case that experts say could carry a prison sentence for the Argentina star.
A Spanish state prosecutor filed a fraud complaint on Wednesday alleging that Messi and his father Jorge avoided paying 4 million euros ($5.3 million) in back taxes through illegal overseas tax havens.
"I am convinced that neither Leo nor his father have committed any infraction," Laporta told Cope radio. "The situation could be that they don’t have any responsibility in these events. There can be third parties who are responsible.
"I know them and they have always wanted to act within the law, and that’s how they acted with the club, at least when I was president."
Laporta said that Messi and his family lacked the financial know-how necessary to have set up the network of shell companies and tax havens in countries including Belize and Uruguay described in the prosecutor’s complaint.
"They were always careful, let’s say even wary, when faced with these situations that were over their heads because they didn’t have the knowledge of a lawyer or a tax expert, and so they went out and got advisers," he said.
Messi has denied any wrongdoing and his lawyers issued a statement on Thursday saying that he "has always punctually attended to his fiscal obligations."
The case was submitted at the court in Gava, near the Mediterranean coastal town where Messi lives. A judge at the court must accept the prosecutor’s complaint before charges can be brought against Messi and his father. If found guilty and barring an out-of-court deal with the tax office, Messi and his father could face 2-6 years in jail, according to Professor Sandalio Gomez, a sports finance analyst at the IESE Business School.
In the complaint, state prosecutor Raquel Amado alleges that from 2006-09 Messi "obtained significant revenue derived from the transfer to third parties of his image rights, income which should have been taxed."
Laporta, who was Barcelona’s president from 2003-10 and is considering running again in 2016 after his foray into politics, said that under his mandate Messi directly controlled 100 percent of earnings from his image rights.
But, Laporta said, Barcelona did follow a common practice of paying 15% of Messi’s salary to a company that controlled his image rights.
He also said that he didn’t remember where that company was based.
"If it was a company based outside Spain it would have been a registered company and in that sense a lawful company," Laporta said.
The 25-year-old Messi has won four straight FIFA world player of the year awards. He has scored 133 goals for Barcelona over the last two seasons and helped it win its fourth Spanish league title in five seasons this year.
Messi, who is rated by Forbes as the world’s 10th highest-paid athlete, reportedly earned $41.3 million to June this year; with $20.3 coming from his club salary and $21 million in endorsements.