Former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was conditionally released on Tuesday after appearing before a judge looking into last year’s “Barcagate” scandal, just days before the club holds presidential elections.
Bartomeu and his former advisor Jaume Masferrer exercised their right not to speak when they were questioned by the judge following a night in jail, the Barcelona court said in a statement.
Police arrested the pair along with two other club officials, and searched Barcelona’s stadium, on Monday as part of a probe into allegations the club carried out a defamation campaign against current and former players who were critical of Bartomeu.
Spanish radio station Cadena Ser claimed in February 2020 that Barca covered up inflated payments to a company called I3 Ventures which it had hired to boost the image of the club on social media.
Part of the social media campaign included criticising current and former players like Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez, and iconic coach Pep Guardiola.
Messi described the controversy as “strange” in an interview with Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
Cadena Ser claimed Barca made its payments to I3 Ventures in smaller, separate amounts to avoid the club’s financial controls.
Emili Rousaud, who resigned as Barcelona vice-president in March last year, said in an interview with RAC1 at the time: “If the auditors tell us the cost of these services is €100,000 and we have paid one million, it means someone has had their hand in the till.”
The club took legal action against him. Rousaud was among six Barca executives to leave their posts last year, with a joint letter citing the scandal as a key issue needing to be resolved.
Catalan regional police said Monday’s arrests were part of a probe into “alleged crime related to property and socio-economic order”.
The Barcelona court said Tuesday that the investigating judge wanted to question Bartomeu and Masferrer as part of an investigation opened in May 2020 into the suspected crimes of false administration and business corruption.
Bartomeu has said I3 Ventures had been hired only to monitor posts on social media.
“Let one thing be clear,” he said. “To the question: Have we commissioned the monitoring of social networks? The answer is yes.
“To the question: Have we commissioned to discredit people or institutions through social networks? The answer is no and we will take action against all those who accuse us of that.”
Bartomeu also announced an internal audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which cleared the club of financial corruption in July but found that “internal approval protocols were not respected” when the contract was awarded to I3 Ventures.
Bartomeu resigned in October, avoiding a vote of no confidence triggered after more than 20,000 club members signed a petition against him.
His departure came in the same month Barcelona announced losses of €97 million for last season and debts that had more than doubled to €488 million euros.
As well as a series of political blunders, Bartomeu had also overseen a dramatic decline in performances on the pitch and a personal falling-out with Messi, who tried to leave for free last summer.
Messi accused the club of “always juggling everything and plugging gaps” under Bartomeu’s leadership.
Bartomeu’s successor is due to be elected on Sunday, when club members will choose between the final three candidates, Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.
Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said Tuesday the arrests harmed the image of the 26-time Spanish champions.
“I think it is not good for the image of the club and we have to wait to see what happens,” Koeman said.
“I feel bad for them, Bartomeu for me has always been an exceptional person,” he added.
La Liga president Javier Tebas also expressed concern, saying the arrests were “not good for Barca or for La Liga”.
“I hope boundaries were not overstepped because otherwise the damage is irrecoverable for Bartomeu as a person and the others who were involved,” he added.
It come as Barcelona and Atletico Madrid will have to cut down the costs of their squads by more than €35 million following new salary limits imposed by La Liga on Tuesday to cope with the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The figures, published twice annually following each transfer window, dictate how much teams can spend on players, coaches, support staff and their youth teams.
They are calculated in line with revenues, which have been obliterated by coronavirus restrictions preventing fans from attending matches for 12 months while depressing the transfer market and reducing income from merchandising.
Barcelona are the club most acutely affected by the new limits and will be forced to reduce their costs by an additional €35.7 million to €347 million.
League leaders Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, must make savings of €35.4 million to meet a new budget of €217.3 million.
Champions Real Madrid have the largest salary limit of all 20 league sides with €473.3 million to spend, and are one of only four clubs allowed to increase their costs ahead of the next campaign, along with Granada, Huesca and Celta Vigo.