The real deal behind the 1997 cricket TV deal

ICC claims Sumathipala received $100,000 payment to award TV rights to WorldTel

29 October 2019 09:48 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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A widely-reported alleged bribery scandal related to a controversial Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL) television rights deal in 1997 has taken a fresh turn with the International Cricket Council (ICC) citing fresh evidence against Thilanga Sumathipala, the then Vice President and Chair of the relevant sponsorship committee, in a 12-page report released to the Ministry of Sports.

After Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup victory, the BCCSL awarded television rights to WorldTel owned by Mark Mascarenas for a sum of US $ 5.5 million. The bid winner allegedly paid a US$ 100,000 bribe to an unnamed official in return. The ICC, in its latest report, identifies Sumathipala, the BCCSL strongman, as the bribe’s recipient.

The report was compiled after Glyn Palmer, a British national involved in the gambling industry, spilled the beans. He confirmed Sumathipala’s connections to the gambling industry and gave evidence to support the alleged corruption. The report says that Palmer, in addition to being Sumathipala’s ‘adviser to set up and grow his Sporting Star business, facilitated hiding and moving illegal payments including those related to TV rights deals’.

“GP (Glyn Palmer) claimed that in 1997 the TV rights for Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) were sold to Mark Mascarenas (now deceased) and his company WorldTel Inc. GP claimed that a 100,000 USD bribe was paid to TS (Thilanga Sumathipala) for these rights,” the report, signed by ICC’s Anti-Corruption Head Alex Marshall, states. “A fax was also copied which appeared to be a request from TS to GP to contact Mascarenas and giving details of an account for Euro Comlink, for transactions. Bank statements provided by GP showed 3 further payments totalling 35,750 USD paid into the same account.”

The report also says, however, that Sumathipala had not personally benefited from the money paid into the account. “It was used to pay bills associated with Sporting Star activity, such as the provision of runners and riders and event information which was initially given down a phone line from a betting shop in Wales enabling Sporting Star to operate real time betting. The same service was later provided by a company called SIS,” it states.

The report was submitted on a Sports Ministry request to facilitate its ongoing investigation of Sumathipala’s connections to gaming and betting. It says Palmer supplied a copy of a cheque for US $ 50,000 from WorldTel to him; a paying slip along with his bank statement; and a letter confirming the credit into his personal account at Midland Bank. “GP says he facilitated this for TS,” it records.

Sumathipala remains banned from cricket after a committee appointed by the Sports Ministry established his connections to the betting industry this month. It cost him his position in Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) as Immediate Past President. The politician has so far not challenged the Ministry’s directive in court but criticised it as “politically motivated”.

When the ICC Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) initially contacted Palmer, a potential witness in a live investigation, he declined to share material. But he later contacted investigators with claims he had evidence of corruption in SLC. Sri Lanka has been under ICC investigation since 2017 for match-fixing and corruption. One cricketer has since been banned for two years while three others are facing charges.

‘The purpose of the meeting was to conduct a scoping of the material and evidence that he possesses which he claimed related to corruption in SLC and financial irregularity,” the report says. “The meeting was recorded and the ICC has a transcript of it”

“The information we hold relates to claims and associated documents which concern the betting industry and alleged corruption. A number of documents have been photographed by the ICC but Palmer retains the originals”.

Sumathipala, who was SLC President from January 2016 to May 2018, was also an ICC director during the same period. There are questions over why the world body did not remove him from its Board had they received information of his involvement in betting as well as alleged bribery and corruption. But ICC sources said that at the time he was on the ICC Board, they had no evidence for an investigation. Details only emerged after the meeting with Palmer at his residence in Britain on on May 8, 2019.

In 1997, BCCSL headed by Upali Dharmadasa entrusted Sumathipala, then a young, energetic Vice President, with negotiating the TV rights along with then CEO Dammika Ranatunga. From applications, they shortlisted five for interviews. WorldTel was awarded the contract on the basis that it made the best bid. It later came to light–after a taped conversation between Mascarenas and Dharmadasa was published in local papers–that the WorldTel owner paid to win the bid.

In the recording, Mascarenas is alleged to have told Dharmadasa that he paid a Board official US$50,000 in London during the previous summer’s ICC meeting but that he was upset about being asked for the balance US$ 50,000 even before the agreement was signed.

The late Mascarenas later denied having made such payment. “I am shocked that my conversations with a man whom I consider my friend and business colleague were being recorded without my knowledge or consent,” Mascarenas was quoted as saying by cricinfo.com in November 1997. “In any event, I deny having made any accusatory remarks during these conversations.”

In a letter published in the Sunday Times on November 23, 1997, Sumathipala, who was at the centre of the controversy, accused then Board President Dharmadasa and Secretary Tryphon Mirando of virtually selling out Sri Lanka’s rights to the WorldTel Television Company.

The letter addressed to BCCSL’s Chief Executive Dammika Ranatunga claimed it was he, Sumathipala, who had first suggested an agreement with WorldTel for television rights for international matches played in Sri Lanka. But without his knowledge and without consulting the Board, Mr. Dharmadasa and Mr. Mirando had later signed with WorldTel a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which he objected to because he felt it was against the interest of the Cricket Board.

Although the Bribery Commission and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) looked keenly into the matter at the time, the inquiry was swept under the carpet.

The ICC report also provides proof that Sumathipala, while he has vehemently denied any involvement in the betting and gaming industry, in fact has direct ties with it. In Sri Lanka, people with links to betting and gaming are barred from holding office in national sports bodies. Sumathipala, however, worked his way around this until a recent amendment to the law which removed the ambiguity in previous regulations to include family involvement.

“Some of the allegations made by GP (and the material seen) may constitute evidence of serious criminal offences in Sri Lanka,” the report affirms. “We request that you review these aspects and consider passing such evidence to the relevant law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka recently gazetted The Bill on Prevention of Offences Relating to Sports and now awaits passage in Parliament to make all sports-related corruption, particularly match-fixing and illegal and betting, criminal offences.

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