A DEADLY GAME: Organized Crime, Political Corruption Tarnish Soccer Clubs in Eastern Europe
Radu, Paul, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
When he was shot in the heart with a single bullet in front of his office, Ilia Pavlov was the president of the Varna football (soccer) club and one of the richest businessmen in post-communist Bulgaria. A former wrestler who married the daughter of a general of the Bulgarian communist State Security agency, Pavlov turned out to be just one case in a string of more than 200 soccer-related murders in post-communist Eastern Europe. The bloodshed, in large part, was a result of intertwining relationships between the most popular team sport in the world, organized crime, corrupt law enforcement and dirty politics.
In recent years, Eastern European football has become a deadly game for the ruthless organized crime groups that use it as their playground. Mobsters, lured by big money and prestige, have bought football clubs to showcase themselves. In addition, they have created global networks of agents and owners who quietly skim the fees paid by one club to another in exchange for acquiring a name player. To avoid taxes, they have worked through tax havens and companies with shell proxies. These organized crime groups have managed to infiltrate politics in Eastern Europe and have shielded themselves from prosecution using connections with corrupt public officials. They have solidified their positions through threats and violence, including murders.
A team of 10 investigative reporters and editors from six countries worked under the auspices of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which can be found at www. reportingproject.net, and lifted the veil of secrecy over parts of what was once known as the "beautiful game."
The resulting project, "Game of Control," is part of a broader OCCRP effort to help the people of Eastern Europe understand how organized crime and corruption affect their lives. OCCRP is a consortium of Eastern European investigative centers, news organizations and journalists that have banded together to cover transnational organized crime and corruption in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The site features investigative projects, news, blogs and features - making it the world's only Web site dedicated to covering organized crime. In addition to the stories, OCCRP is building an online resource center of documents related to organized crime that will include court records, laws, reports, studies and company records that will serve as a resource center for journalists and the public alike.
Putting the puzzle together
The investigation started from the realization that law-enforcement agencies of various countries were investigating the sport, but their efforts stopped at their borders. Nobody was investigating the whole picture of what has become a multibillion-dollar transnational business - some of it quite corrupt.
Reporters from investigative centers and prestigious media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine began a simultaneous look at the business of football in their countries. The data they collected was exchanged using collaborative software platforms. Hundreds of records were mapped by using social networking analysis software. A virtual newsroom was created to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to prove once more the tremendous power that the Internet and new digital tools offer to investigative journalism.
The OCCRP reporters found a link to their stories in an investigation in Brazil, then combed through the records of more than 50 companies and investigations in the British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Romania and Uruguay to get at the scope of illegal transfers.
Just as in other OCCRP projects, the reporters scanned national registries of commerce to gather the ownership data of the most important football clubs in the region. The information was then shared and posted in country-specific folders through Microsoft Office Groove, which is a software platform that enables secure collaboration through the Internet and creation of virtual newsrooms. Journalists were able to check all of the company records posted on Groove to find cross-ownership of clubs and to track the related regional business interests of football club owners. It turned out that crooked football agents additionally were involved in the real-estate business, entertainment industry and private security companies. They also had influence in political organizations. The reporting did not go smoothly because many of the main characters had been assassinated or had disappeared in recent years. Journalists had to patiently untangle the changes of ownerships in clubs and complex nested company structures with offshore holding companies to map the corporate relationships.
Analyzing the data
The maze of corporate, law-enforcement and court records was mapped through i2, which is a visual investigative analysis software available at www.i2.co.uk. The analysis revealed a trail of law-enforcement investigations stretching from Bulgaria to Paraguay and Brazil, and from Romania to Western Europe. Each icon on the i2 chart is a representation of a character that is important to the journalistic investigation. Each representation is supported by documents highlighting the role of the person or organization.
The analysis uncovered an important connection between a Brazilian Senate inquiry, a Romanian prosecution indictment and a judicial investigation in Marseille, France. The documents from those three sources independently mentioned the same individuals or companies that turned out to be involved in alleged tax evasion and money-laundering schemes related to international transfers of football players. The OCCRP reporters then used the names they found and began searching on commercial databases as diverse as the European Business Registry, Lexis-Nexis, Brazilian Courts, the Guernsey Financial Services Tribunal, Paraguayan company records and a multitude of other national and international databases.
Connections were quickly confirmed, and the global network of players' transfers unfolded. The dry, record-based data was matched with footwork and interviews with insiders and law enforcement. The majority of the techniques used by OCCRP for the "Game of Control" project are outlined in "Follow the Money: A Digital Guide to Tracking Corruption," a handbook published in 2008 in Brussels at the European Investigative Journalism Conference. It was published by the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism in cooperation with the Washington-based International Center for Journalists and with the help of OCCRP and of the Global Investigative Journalism. It is available at www.icfj.org/Resources/FollowtheMoney/ tabid/1170/Default.aspx.
Raising the standards
After months of work, draft reports started flowing toward the Center for Investigative Journalism in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the editors of the project are based. OCCRP's advising editors, former Washington Post editor Bob Samsot and former IRE executive director Rosemary Armao, used their decades of experience with Western journalism to bring the sourcing and writing of the project into full compliance with international editorial standards.
In the meantime, the materials were fact-checked to ensure accuracy, which was not an easy process in a transnational story with records from more than a dozen countries and nine languages, multiple reporters and differing journalism standards.
The OCCRP process offers a way to share experiences and cultures because it provides a platform on which local knowledge and customs are shared by reporters from various countries with each other and with editors. In doing so, it offers Eastern European journalists a way of learning techniques and standards not always used in their countries.
Beginning in December 2008, stories in the project started being published by mainstream media outlets, on blogs and in specialty discussion forums in the Balkans and Western Europe. The process continues as the investigative team rigorously pursues new leads.
A virtual newsroom was created to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to prove once more the tremendous power that the Internet and new digital tools offer to investigative journalism.
BY PAUL RADU
ROMANIAN CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
Paul Radu is a cross-border investigative projects coordinator in the Balkans and a Knight fellow with the International Center for journalists.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: A DEADLY GAME: Organized Crime, Political Corruption Tarnish Soccer Clubs in Eastern Europe. Contributors: Radu, Paul - Author. Magazine title: Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal. Volume: 32. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2009. Page number: 16+. © Investigative Reporters & Editors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.