[Update on 8 May, at 9.15am uk time. This story contains links to a fake website used in the News of the World sting. That website is no longer ‘live’, as of this morning, funnily enough. As part of sportingintelligence’s initial look at how the sting was arranged, we screen-saved the fake website, and some of those screen shots are here. They are integral to understanding the sting. Our original story otherwise remains untouched, and as filed on 3 May. We leave in the broken links. It is our understanding the fake site has been taken down after legitimate companies mentioned on the fake site complained about their unwitting involvement in the sting.]
By Nick Harris
3 May 2010
As serious doubts persist today over the professional future of the world’s No1 snooker player, John Higgins, sportingintelligence can reveal key details about the mechanics of the News of the World sting that led to the Scot being filmed in Ukraine last Friday apparently agreeing to accept bribes for losing a single frame at each of four unspecified future events.
On the one hand the details give an insight into the extraordinary planning and cost of a NotW investigation, this one led – as is so often the case – by its investigations officer, Mazher Mahmood.
On the other hand, scrutiny of the methods used by Mahmood, as well as close examination of the apparently damning NotW evidence against Higgins and his manager, Pat Mooney, will form part of an investigation into the affair, due to start on Tuesday.
That investigation will be undertaken by snooker’s governing body, the WPBSA, to ascertain how Higgins and Mooney found themselves in Ukraine talking about losing frames for cash. Higgins faces harsh punishment, including a long ban from snooker, unless he can adequately explain how he came to be talking about losing games.
The case will not be probed by the Gambling Commission or the police because the NotW has not alleged that any money has changed hands or that any matches or frames have been fixed. With no bets to look at, there is no suggestion of criminal wrong-doing in this case.
There are also grey areas about precisely how, when and where the NotW reporters wanted frames lost, and how much money they would pay, and when.
Barry Hearn, the WPBSA’s chairman, has said today that Mooney has “no future in snooker”. Arguably the most damning part of the case against Mooney and Higgins is they failed to report an approach from would-be fixers to Hearn as soon as they got back to Britain.
As Hearn said today: “One of the reasons I was so upset with the video evidence etcetera was I didn’t get a phone call. If someone approaches [a player], and I can’t stop people outside approaching players, what I can say is it’s their responsibility to report that instance immediately so the authorities are aware and can act on them.”
The WPBSA investigation will be led by David Douglas, a former Metropolitan Police detective chief superintendent who joined the WPBSA board last month. He is expected to get full co-operation from the News of the World.
The NotW’s reporting on Sunday said the paper “sent an undercover reporter to meet [Mooney] after being tipped off by a sports insider worried that Mooney and Higgins could be involved in match-fixing”. There is no further information on the identity of the “insider” or their motives.
Mooney and Higgins have worked together since 2007 to establish new snooker events in “non-traditional” markets to help “grow the game” in an era when it has suffered badly from a lack of tournaments, sponsors and prize money in the wake of the withdrawal of tobacco advertising.
The events staged by the pair have been known as the World Snooker Series (WSS), and as the NoTW said on Sunday, the paper’s team “were posing as businessmen interested in organising a series of events linked to the World Snooker Series”.
Sportingintelligence can reveal Mahmood initially made contact with Mooney posing as a businessman called Marcus D’Souza, who claimed to be the ‘Senior Project Co-Ordinator’ for a fictional company, Alfa Equity.
Mooney was led to believe that Alfa Equity was a subsidiary firm of a real company, Alfa Bank, which is in fact the largest private commercial bank in Russia. Alfa Equity isn’t a subsidiary because it doesn’t exist.
The News of the World and / or Mahmood, created a website for this fake company, Alfa Equity, which is linked here.
The Alfa Equity home page boasts: “Founded in 1990, Alfa Equity is one of Russia’s largest privately owned financial-industrial conglomerates, with interests in oil and gas, mining, commercial and investment banking, asset management, insurance, retail trade, telecommunications, media, water supply and water disposal, as well as other industrial-trade and special-situation investments.”
All this is untrue, but was key to establishing Mooney’s trust in the operation. Also key to the sting was a fake news story on the Alfa website about Alfa buying a (fictional) Chinese clothing firm, a company later said to be seeking marketing opportunities via sporting events, like the WSS that Mooney and Higgins promote.
This untrue story about the Chinese firm was placed on the website next to other (true) stories about other firms, wholly unrelated to Alfa but linked via presentation to seem like they were associated.
Alfa’s HQ on the website is given as a real address in Moscow. Sportingintelligence has established the premises at the address given is a serviced office building, but as Alfa does not exist, it is not based there.
The website is bilingual, available in English or Russian. On another page, there is a Current Investment Projects portfolio. This features real projects and real companies, claiming Alfa invests or has invested in them. These firms’ real details have been used under false pretenses without the companies’ knowledge. Sportingintelligence knows some of these firms are investigating how and why their details have been used in this way. Alfa Equity does not invest in these firms because it doesn’t exist.
Another page on the website for the fake Alfa firm gives contact details for the (fake) Moscow HQ, as well as names and email addresses for a variety of contacts, including Marcus D’Souza, aka Mazher Mahmood, who used the email address firstname.lastname@example.org for correspondence with Mooney.
‘Marcus D’Souza’ approached Mooney via email saying he worked for Alfa Equity, apparently a rich and successful firm with established links to companies including a (real) diamond exploration firm, (real) property developers and the (fake) Chinese clothing firm, and that Alfa wanted to get involved in organising a series of events linked to WSS.
On this basis Mooney met D’Souza / Mahmood in Edinburgh to talk about specifics. During around seven hours of a first meeting, details were discussed for snooker events (involving and backed by Alfa and related fake firms) in Kiev, Warsaw, Prague and Copenhagen.
Mooney and D’Souza / Mahmood had dinner, and alcohol was consumed until the early hours. A second Edinburgh meeting followed a similar pattern. The upshot was an agreement for Alfa to be involved in staging four events, with detailed agreement on fees due to Mooney for consulting, and appearance money for players.
Mooney is understood to have had formal agreements for these events drawn up with a London law firm. Provisional schedules even included details about the involvement of Eurosport as a proposed broadcaster.
D’Souza / Mahmood is understood to have agreed to all this, posing as the partner-elect in these future “exhibition” events. He used the fake ‘Marcus’ email address to send communication about event plans back and forward.
According to the NotW coverage, one of its reporters (Mahmood, though this is not stated) raised the issue of match-fixing at a meeting with Mooney, who discussed the subject in general terms. A reporter is later quoted as saying “It’s exhibition matches” that were being talked about.
There does not appear to be anything specific about what Higgins was required do in precise terms, ie where and when, or how he would be paid. The NotW’s coverage can be accessed in full on its wesbite (linked here), and it speaks for itself.
The point of this article is to place the case in some context, although sportingintelligence has limited access to full context. The WPBSA investigation should be able to access full records of all covertly taped and filmed meetings as well as be briefed on the NotW‘s methods.
Higgins never met any the NotW sting team prior to Kiev last week. Initially, Mooney and Higgins were meant to visit Kiev in the week starting 11 May, to visit a proposed venue for one of Alfa’s proposed events. When Higgins lost in this year’s world championship earlier than expected, the Kiev trip was brought forward to last Thursday-Friday, 29-30 April.
Mooney and Higgins arrived on separate scheduled flights and were met by private cars on the tarmac off the plane and fast-tracked through customs. This gave the impression of local high-level backing for the proposed event. It must be assumed the NotW arranged this VIP treatment somehow for the purposes of its investigation.
Higgins and Mooney visit the proposed venue for the fictitious event the NoTW’s “businessmen” said they wanted to stage, met local players, and then discovered from D’Souza / Mahmood that another senior Alfa official they had been expecting to meet was unavoidably absent, apparently on business in China.
Instead they were introduced to another Alfa official (another undercover reporter), “Jaroslav” , and a man called Nikail.
At some stage on Thursday, the NotW team apparently made it clear to Mooney that they were not just businessmen wanting to stage events (as originally claimed) but were, or had links to, a shady gambling syndicate. The story in the NotW on Sunday does not make clear how this information was imparted, or when, but there is a section in the article that quotes a reporter saying (verbatim below, any lack of clarity is as in the original):
“And, as I say, the places these guys (the syndicate) are gambling. They’re not gambling BetFair, they’re not gambling in Ladbrokes, they’re gambling in places that you and I haven’t even heard of . . . it’s not about the love of snooker . . . they want to gamble and make a few quid.”
Nowhere does the News of the World claim Higgins had any prior knowledge of a deal to lose any frames prior to the fateful (filmed) meeting last Friday. In fact the first “spread” in the NotW’s Sunday coverage says: “The idea agreed earlier by Mooney was for Higgins to deliberately lose four frames. Now the player himself had to rubber-stamp the details…”
Mooney and Higgins are both expected to tell the WPBSA investigation that the first Higgins knew of any approach to lose any game was when Mooney told him about it on Friday just before the meeting.
Both men have already gone on record via statements (Higgins) and an interview widely quoted in today’s media (Mooney) that they had been “spooked” by the unexpected appearance of ‘Jaroslav’ and ‘Nikail’, and by the non-appearance of the Alfa executive who was supposedly in China.
Both Higgins and Mooney have said they agreed they would say whatever was necessary to “get out” of the meeting that followed.
It was taped. It lasted about 10 minutes. Edited sections are on the NotW website, and a still photograph from the footage showing Higgins shaking hands with a reporter was used in the paper.
The WPBSA’s investigation intends to find out what really happened, and why.