Campaigners have demanded “maximum transparency” over the UK’s handling of £2.5bn earmarked for charity from the sale of Chelsea Football Club, as they are increasingly concerned about Roman Abramovich’s influence over the process.
The sanctioned Russian oligarch is awaiting approval from the British government to proceed with the sale of the west London club to a group led by US financier Todd Boehly.
Chelsea said in a statement last week that the £2.5bn sum would be deposited into a “frozen UK bank account with the intention to donate 100 per cent to charitable causes”, adding that the proceeds could not be transferred without UK government approval.
While the government has stressed Abramovich should not benefit from the funds, critics have hit out at the lack of transparency around the process.
Chelsea’s statement said Abramovich’s team had appointed a “lead independent expert” who “has had conversations with government representatives presenting the structure and initial plans”.
It had also identified “senior representatives from UN bodies and large global charitable organisations who have been tasked with forming a foundation and setting out a plan for its activities”.
Government representatives declined to identify the expert and representatives, while a spokesperson for Abramovich did not respond to a request for comment.
“It is eyebrow raising that this information is not being enthusiastically disclosed,” said Laurie Styron, executive director at US-based watchdog CharityWatch.
“Hopefully the priorities of the person chosen to lead this effort are closely aligned with public opinion and interest. Of course, we have no way to judge that if they refuse to tell us who this person is.”
One concern expressed in government is whether the kind of foundation being discussed would be able to handle the proceeds of any sale.
“How many charities have a budget of more than £1bn,” said one ally of Nadine Dorries, minister responsible for sport. “We have to be confident they would be able to handle that amount of money.”
Joe Powell, co-founder of activist association Kensington Against Dirty Money, said there must be “maximum transparency about who is benefiting and who is advising the process”.
Jeff Smith, Labour MP for Manchester, Withington and shadow sports minister, said: “The government must now be transparent about where the billions of pounds raised from the sale will go, and set out who is involved in the charitable foundation.”
The Chelsea statement said Abramovich “has not been involved in this work and it has been managed independently by experts with years of experience working in humanitarian organisations”.
Senior government officials said ministers had set a “high bar of trust” in their dealings with Abramovich and that they would not be satisfied with any “gentleman’s agreement” that is not legally watertight.
“Our position is that the full proceeds of a sale must go — as he has said — to a good cause. We are in negotiations with the club on how that will be structured,” said one.
The official added that there was “a growing consensus in government that the money must be spent in Ukraine in its entirety”, adding that the club had nominated “serious people” to negotiate on how this might be done.
The UK’s Charity Commission said it “has not received any application to register a charity to receive the proceeds of the sale”.
“If and when we do, the application will be assessed in line with our standard processes. We have no comment to make in the meantime”.
Boehly’s group, which includes investment firm Clearlake Capital, Guggenheim Partners chief executive Mark Walter and Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, plans to invest a further £1.75bn in Chelsea in addition to the £2.5bn.