Soccer bosses in court over ‘shyster’ claim

By James Brewster, June 4, 2009
Mr Levi pictured on his way to court

Mr Levi pictured on his way to court

Former Leeds United director Melvyn Levi said this week that club chairman Ken Bates had repeatedly “vilified” him in print in a bid to “deflect criticisms” of his own running of the club.

Mr Levi, 65, is suing Mr Bates at London’s High Court for libel over three articles written by the chairman in the club’s match-day programme in 2006 and 2007, and a letter sent to fans in 2007.

The court heard that the articles variously accused Mr Levi of being a shyster, an “enemy within”, attempting to blackmail the club and scaring off potential investors. Ken Bates denies all the charges made by Mr Levi.

The dispute arose after Mr Bates, 77, took over the club in 2005 from the Yorkshire Consortium Trust, of which Mr Levi was a member.

Mr Bates says that Mr Levi blocked the sale of a number of shares in 2005 when he had no reason for doing so.

Mr Levi says he was never acting in a personal capacity — but rather for a company he was involved with called Cope Industrial Holdings — and that there was a “genuine” legal dispute over whether or not a call option on the shares had lapsed.

Mr Levi said the articles and letter had caused him and his family “enormous distress” and also accused Mr Bates of using antisemitic language.

He told Mr Justice Gray: “These wholly unjustified written assaults on me have caused injury to my reputation and have led me to suffer considerable embarrassment and upset.”

Describing his reputation in the business world as “fair and honest”, Mr Levi said it had been important for him to retain his family’s good name.

His father, Jack Levi, was a “prominent and highly respected” criminal lawyer in Leeds, who had a reputation for “honesty and integrity and a brilliant mind”.

Although initially he got on well with Mr Bates, said Mr Levi, by August 2005 he had been “banned” from all Leeds matches after it was alleged that he had said at a pre-season friendly that he was going to “make it as hard as I can for Ken Bates” and criticised the club.

In October 2006, Mr Bates wrote in the programme for a game against Leicester City that Mr Levi was a “shyster”, putting in brackets “no, that is not antisemitic”.

But Mr Levi said: “I am a Jewish businessman and, as such, I believe that the allegation that I am a shyster is much more hurtful than if I were not Jewish. I do not accept Mr Bates’s claims that by calling me a shyster he is not being antisemitic.

“If the word shyster had no antisemitic connotations, I wonder why he thought it necessary to even mention it as soon as he used the word.”

Mr Levi added that Mr Bates had previously referred to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich as a “shyster”.

“It is interesting, I think, that when attacking both myself and Mr Abramovich, both Jewish, Mr Bates on both occasions chooses to describe us as shysters,” he said. “That does seem to be more than a coincidence.”

Ronald Thwaites QC, for Mr Bates, has accused Mr Levi of being dishonest in bringing his libel claim, something which the businessman denies.

“I do not accept that I am a shyster, a blackmailer nor dishonourable, dishonest or a disgrace,” said Mr Levi.

But Mr Thwaites said that Mr Levi was not entitled to a penny in damages. He said Mr Bates was protected by “qualified privilege” as the allegations he made were in the public interest.

He added that the statements Mr Bates made were “justified” and “fair comment”, and denied that he was antisemitic or had ever “used language that the Nazis would use”.

The case continues.

Last updated: 11:13am, June 4 2009