Crown: Watson stole $1.4m in football bill fraud

Canover Watson (left) and Bruce Blake

(CNS): Canover Watson, the former treasurer of the Cayman Islands Football Association (CITA), stole US$1.45 million from CONCACAF, the regional football body, using massively fake invoices inflated, prosecutors alleged when opening the decade-long case against Watson and Bruce Blake on Friday. They accused Blake, the former vice president of CIFA and at the time a lawyer at Maples, of helping Watson funnel ill-gotten gains through the financial system.

At the time of the alleged crime, between 2013 and 2014, in addition to holding the CIFA purse strings, Watson and Blake were working at CONCACAF with their longtime friend Jeff Webb, who was Watson’s business partner and also chairman. CONCACAF, which has approximately 41 teams across the Americas and the Caribbean.

As Eloise Marshall QC opened the prosecution case, she told the jury that Watson used his position in that football community to steal the money, then, with Blake’s help, set about hiding it by creating fake agreements and documents so they can spend it.

The crown said that after meeting Shakeel Khawaja, a sales agent for Forward Sports, a perfectly legitimate company that had hoped to supply sports equipment to CIFA, Watson set up a shell company called Forward Sports (Cayman). He then used this company to create fake sponsorship deals to supply huge amounts of football equipment for use across the region, including by youth in the grassroots teams.

Both Watson and Blake have denied all allegations against them. They are charged with a number of offences, most of which relate to the conspiracy between them to hide, disguise and ultimately launder the stolen money. Watson is also charged with the actual theft of the money at the heart of the case, Marshall told the court, as she began to lay out the complexities of the Crown case against the two men.

As Marshall explained the eight counts, she laid out the details of the main offense, which is how Watson allegedly stole the money. Using the shell version of Forward Sports, which Watson established in Panama, he sent three fake invoices to CONCACAF for a football kit manufactured and supplied from Pakistan, where the real Forward Sports company was based.

Given CONCACAF’s poor internal processes and what appeared to be blind eyes, Watson was able to get the massively inflated and unrealistic invoices approved for items such as tens of thousands of footballs, thousands of goals, sports bags, football strips, dribble cones and even 15,000 ushers’ vests for the Gold Cup, where there were probably no more than 150 ushers on duty throughout the tournament. None of these things were ever provided.

In a deal with Blake, the men used more front companies, Blake’s authentic consultancy firm bank account here in Cayman and local CIFA accounts to access and launder the money, including a complex set of deals loan for CIFA which they tried to disguise as money for its center of excellence.

Marshall explained that the crimes came to light as a result of pressure from two directions. The first was from CONCACAF staff who noticed their kit inventory was running low and started asking questions. This led to Watson placing an actual order with Forward Sports and paying for it. The second was during CIFA’s annual audit when the local audit firm began to question the odd loan agreements on the accounts.

The loans were first presented as sponsorship agreements, then converted into shell company loans. Watson eventually told listeners in a private meeting that these loans actually came from him, as he was the beneficial owner of the various Panamanian companies involved, and that they would be converted into sponsorship deals.

Although he never told listeners what he was doing, the Crown alleges it was all part of efforts to cover up the initial CONCACAF robbery. Marshall said the conspiracies were designed to confuse and misappropriate, and Watson and Blake used forged documents, forged signatures and numerous other fraudulent means to access the money.

The Crown also alleges that the motivation for the theft was in part to repay a loan that CIFA had taken out with Fidelity Bank. By 2012, CIFA’s overdraft was over half a million dollars, and the bank and FIFA were pressuring the association to repay the loan. Marshall said it jeopardizes Webb’s potential promotion to CONCACAF president and FIFA vice-president.

Marshall will continue to present the crown brief on Monday. The trial is expected to last about ten weeks, with Judge Margaret Ramsay-Hale presiding.

Return to CNS for regular courtroom coverage.

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