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CORRUPTION

The man who thought he was above the law

Ex-Sevilla soccer club chief José María del Nido faces seven years in jail after being found guilty of embezzling 2.8 million euros from Marbella City Hall

José María del Nido wipes away a tear as he announces his resignation from his post as president of Sevilla FC.
José María del Nido wipes away a tear as he announces his resignation from his post as president of Sevilla FC. REUTERS

José María del Nido said in a 2005 interview that he felt like one of the most important men on the planet. At the time, he was president of Sevilla Football Club, which was enjoying a period of unprecedented success. Eight years later, on December 5, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption and embezzlement of public funds in the Mediterranean resort of Marbella.

The Supreme Court ruling ratified that of Malaga's provincial court in 2011 for the embezzlement of 2.8 million euros between 1999 and 2003. Del Nido immediately filed an appeal after the lower court's findings.

The lawyer presided over the most successful period in Sevilla's history, with a pair of UEFA Cups among the trophies won after his arrival in 2002 as president and a major shareholder.

The 56-year-old was found guilty of charging Marbella City Hall 2.86 million euros in legal fees for work that could have been carried out by public servants, in cahoots with the city's former mayor, Julián Muñoz, who is currently in prison serving a sentence handed down in a separate corruption case.

Del Nido told reporters that he would continue to defend his name and find the "legal mechanisms" to try to avoid going to jail. "I wouldn't be the first person to be pardoned by the government in recent centuries," he said earlier this month in Sevilla's Sánchez Pizjuán stadium, where he also announced that he would be standing down as president of the club.

Insisting on his innocence, he said he would accept his responsibilities and face the "consequences" of his actions, announcing that his first intention was to pay back the 2,800,000 euros he embezzled.

I wouldn't be the first person to be pardoned by the government"

In the event of having to go to prison, if all his appeals fail, he said he would do so "with dignity."

He took over as major shareholder and president of Sevilla in 2002 after being involved with the club since the mid-1980s. A decade earlier, while still studying law, he was linked to a vicious assault on a Communist Party activist in the city. His father, José María del Nido Borrego, was a regional leader of the crypto-fascist New Force party, which had earned a reputation for violence.

After graduating, he set up a small law firm with the help of his father, who had been a member of Sevilla's board in the 1960s. In 1986, Luis Cuervas, then-president of the club, offered him a position on the club's board. His involvement with the far right continued: in 1984 he defended Manuel Fernández Hidalgo, who was tried for his involvement in a failed coup attempt in October of 1982.

A decade later, in the summer of 1994, Sevilla lent star player Diego Simeone to Atlético Madrid, bringing Del Nido into contact with that club's owner, the late Jesús Gil. A year later, Del Nido left Sevilla, which had been relegated to the lower divisions for administrative irregularities.

The flamboyant and corrupt Gil had taken over as mayor of Marbella in 1991, and called Del Nido after firing the head of his own legal team. He was looking for a man with ambition capable of dealing with the mounting problems he faced from tax inspectors looking into the city's accounts. Del Nido's involvement with Marbella would be strengthened after Julián Muñoz was elected mayor in 2003, once Gil had been found guilty of financial wrongdoing and barred from office.

"Del Nido is a distant figure for most people in Marbella. We don't feel as close to him as others. When he arrived, he found a place that had voted Gil's party in four times in a row. He also saw how the courts would routinely refuse to open investigations into the myriad cases brought against City Hall for corruption," says Javier de Luis, a member of the NGO Environmentalists in Action, which led the campaign to uproot corruption in Marbella.

"There came a time when he went from representing City Hall to becoming part of the corrupt structure built by Gil and his associates," says De Luis. His activities were eventually uncovered — although the civil servant who raised the alarm lost his job — and Del Nido was brought before the provincial court in Malaga in 2011, just one of 95 defendants in Spain's largest corruption trial, which began in 2010 and came to a close in October of this year. The "Malaya case" trial was one of Spain's first attempts to come to terms with the widespread corruption usually associated with the construction sector.

In October of this year, Juan Antonio Roca, the mastermind behind the sprawling web of real estate-linked corruption in Marbella, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined 240 million euros after being found guilty of money laundering, receiving bribes, fraud and other offenses.

"Del Nido took advantage of the impunity he enjoyed in Marbella," says Inmaculada Gálvez, a former Socialist Party member of the Andalusia regional assembly. "He understood the principle that money can buy everything."

Del Nido also took advantage of his position as president of Sevilla to set up several profitable business deals, buying property, bars, and restaurants throughout the region. In the meantime, he separated from his wife, Ángeles Rodríguez, who was also sentenced for her involvement in Del Nido's business activities, while gradually gaining financial control over Sevilla by buying up shares and putting one of his sons on the club's board of directors.

But the writing was on the wall once Spanish police opened their investigation into corruption in Marbella City Hall in 2005.

The Public Prosecutor's Office is calling for Del Nido to be sentenced to a further 11 years' jail time for his involvement in the Fergocon case, also involving his two brothers, who stand accused of embezzling huge sums from Marbella City Hall for services that were never rendered.