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 adviser 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 ($121,000) and we have paid one million, it means someone has had their hand in the till.”
The club took legal action against him. He 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.
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.
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.
Laporta, a former Barcelona president who is the front-runner in the race, said the arrests “diminish the reputation of the club”.
Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said Tuesday the arrests were “not good” for the image of the 26-time Spanish champions.
“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.
Asked if the he felt that affair would hurt the Spanish league’s brand abroad, La Liga president Javier Tebas said: “I don’t think so, the brand La Liga has built in recent years is very strong and it won’t affect it.”
“But it is not good for the reputation of La Liga what happened yesterday, even if it does not affect it,” he added.