17th Jul, 2019

"NO": Coventry council leaders' one-word denial of any discussions in failed Coventry City takeover plot - as they shut down questions

Les Reid 28th Jun, 2019 Updated: 30th Jun, 2019

LEADING Coventry council figures have issued a belated one-word denial – “No” – that they were involved in any discussions over a failed Coventry City takeover plot involving Wasps – while seeking to shut down media questions.

In doing so, they lashed out at legitimate press and public enquiries in a brief statement, which warned they would not be answering any more such questions on the matter.

It is not clear who precisely was behind the council’s pithy response today. It came in an anonymised statement attributed to a ‘council spokesman’ in response to Coventry Observer written questions we had emailed to council leader George Duggins and the council’s taxpayer-funded communications/PR department.

The questions particularly concerned Coun Duggins and Coventry City Council chief executive Martin Reeves.

As we reported yesterday, we had put three written questions to leading council figures, amid widespread public concerns expressed on internet forums by Coventry City fans and others.

We had received no response from anyone at the council to our story on Wednesday, in which former would-be CCFC takeover consortium member Richard Overson alleged Wasps (or a connected party) had sought a financial input in a failed bid to buy Coventry City Football Club.

Other sources had named names of other individuals said to be involved in the discussions.

As we reported yesterday, our three supplementary questions to leading council figures were:

* Were the council leader, council executives including CEO Martin Reeves or any council representative, or party acting on their behalf, involved in any way in discussions concerning a failed takeover plot to buy Coventry City?

* Were they aware of Wasps’ involvement, including alleged financial backing from Wasps or a related party, at a time when leading councillors were supporting Wasps’ stance of locking the club out of the stadium built for it, unless stringent conditions were met?

* Were Coun Duggins and Mr Reeves aware of the involvement in the CCFC takeover discussions of two of their colleagues from the City of Culture Trust board named by our sources yesterday, Baljit Shergill and Roger Medwell? In what capacity were they allegedly acting?

The following brief emailed response came this morning..

“A spokesperson for Coventry City Council said: “The answer to your three questions is no and the City Council will not respond further to spurious, speculative questions seemingly without any evidence or foundation.”

We have responded by asking these further questions….

* For clarity, who is issuing this response? Given its nature, it is important that it is not attributed to “a spokesperson for Coventry City Council”. In the interests of the council’s constitutional commitment to honesty and transparency, please name names. The council leader solely?

* What does the comment mean by “the council”? This must be misleading as the council of 54 councillors has not had any opportunity to agree such a strategy, which would be against council codes of conduct on openness and transparency.

* Does “the council” as a public body wish to shut down what is very clearly legitimate media inquiry and scrutiny on an important matter that is both in the public interest and of great interest to readers?

Obviously, media and public enquiries can by their nature be speculative, or based on claims by others, or based on evidence. Clearly, that is the nature and purpose of questioning in all walks of life, and it is perfectly legitimate.

* What is the taxpayer spend on the council’s communications office?

* Why is “the leader” no longer a member of the City of Culture Trust Board, and since when?

* Finally, and importantly, the one word answer to the three questions of ‘no’ is inadequate. Would the council leader wish to embellish? If not, why not?

We await any further response.

WE NAMED NAMES

Inside sources claimed individuals involved in discussions concerning the takeover plot included Wasps director Mark Robertson – who is also chief executive of wealth management company The Hottinger Group – and Mr Shergill and Mr Medwell.

They have sat on the trust’s board with Coventry City Council leader George Duggins and council chief executive Martin Reeves.

The Coventry Observer had also put a series of questions to them, Wasps and individually to Wasps wealthy ‘ultimate shareholder’ Derek Mr Richardson and Mr Robertson.

All had declined by yesterday to respond to our questions and story, or to deny they were involved in the would-be takeover discussions.

Throughout the period of secret discussions, Wasps owners – supported by council leaders – repeatedly insisted the football club as tenants would be locked out of the Ricoh Arena if its owners did not drop legal action against the council’s 2014 stadium sale to then London Wasps.

As we reported yesterday, we asked Wasps and named individuals including Mr Richardson whether there was (a) any involvement and (b) any suggestion of financial backing or involvement from Wasps Holdings Limited, or its directors, or ultimate shareholder or another party involved with Wasps, and we requested clear responses.

We were told there would be no further comment other than Wasps’ previously released brief statement which read: “Nick Eastwood, Chief Executive of Wasps Group, said: “We have been approached at times by different parties who have an interest in Coventry City and its future at the Ricoh Arena. We obviously cannot reveal the identity of the parties but can say that we have not offered any financial backing to, or agreed any rent or lease deal with, any of them.

“We would simply like to see the club back playing at the Ricoh Arena, a view we believe is shared by everyone involved.”

FURTHER BACKGROUND

Multi-millionaire Richard Overson and fan of Coventry City pulled out of the proposed CCFC takeover consortium because of Wasps’ involvement.

He told us: “I came out because London Wasps were involved. I’ve never been a fan of them from day one.

“I’ve never been happy with Wasps playing at the Ricoh Arena and being in Coventry.”

Asked by the Coventry Observer if the proposal was that Wasps, or people involved at the top of Wasps, would put in money, Mr Overson told us: “I would say so, yes.

“From my involvement in the consortium my understanding was that Wasps were going to have a financial input.”

With Coventry City now preparing to play home matches at Birmingham City, the boss of CCFC’s owners, Joy Seppala, told Sky Sports News on Monday that she believed Wasps had sought to buy Coventry City Football Club.

She said this was because of the potential for “infinite” revenues were the club to be combined with the Ricoh Arena and potentially gain promotion to the Premiership. By contrast, she claimed, Wasps as a premiership rugby club (with comparatively much less money in the sport) had “topped out” with its income potential.

She also reminded viewers of how Arena Coventry Limited – then owned by the council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity – had bid to buy the football club as it came out of administration in 2013.

Wasps are £55million in debt and face having to pay back £35million of that debt to bondholders in 2022.

Coventry City personnel have previously suggested they could lose up to £2million a year – including in fans’ footfall – from losing Coventry City.

As we revealed, Sisu has claimed Wasps were insisting – as a condition for Coventry City remaining at the stadium built for it – that it must underwrite any future potential damages and losses for Wasps, including any flowing from Sisu’s Complaint to the European Commission.

Such a condition is undeliverable, could bankrupt Coventry City and would remove their basic legal rights, Sisu claims.

Sisu’s complaint to the EC argues Coventry City Council’s agreement to sell the Ricoh Arena company to Wasps on a massively extended 250-year lease was an unlawful “state aid” use of taxpayers’ money under European laws, and that Wasps should pay back £28million to the council. That case has been rejected by the highest UK courts.

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