The Blues now face a difficult situation.
Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung was jailed for six years for money laundering after a Hong Kong trial that put the mysterious fortune of the hairdresser-turned-businessman under intense scrutiny.
Judge Douglas Yau said the sentence sent a strong message against white-collar crime in the southern Chinese city, following the 54-year-old’s conviction on five charges of laundering HK$720 million ($93 million).
The high-profile trial gripped the semi-autonomous region and fans of the British football club alike with its tales of unexplained dealings and financial transactions involving local businessmen and an alleged triad member.
“The sentence must include an element of deterrence to discourage those who are in a position to exploit the system,” Yau told a courtroom packed with reporters.
“Maintaining the integrity of the banking system is of paramount importance if Hong Kong is to remain an international finance centre,” he added.
“The law will come down on them with full force.”
Yeung was arrested and charged with ill-gotten gains in the southern Chinese city in June 2011, two years after he acquired the “Blues”. He was found guilty on Monday.
The court heard how the former hairdresser had a business relationship with Cheung Chi-tai, who the judge said was the leader of the Hong Kong Wo Hop To triad group, citing an expert’s report.
Yeung made large investments in the Macau gambling industry, investing millions into shares of a gambling company backed by Cheung and another Hong Kong tycoon, the court heard.
“I find that without his considerable skill in share dealings and connections to the Macau casinos, the laundering could not have gone on for such a long time and on such a large scale,” Yau said of Yeung.
Hong Kong police investigator Gloria Yu said outside court that she was “happy” with the outcome of the case, which started in 2008.
In their mitigation bid, Yeung’s lawyers pleaded for leniency Friday, saying that the total amount laundered was only HK$449.01 million, claiming double counting.
Lead defence lawyer Graham Harris told the judge that Yeung, who built a business empire that included hair salons and real estate, “came from rags to riches, and he’s likely to return to rags”.
Throughout the trial, Yeung and the prosecution painted differing pictures of how the former hairdresser amassed his fortune.
The prosecution successfully argued during the trial that the HK$720 million that passed through the five accounts had come from “unknown parties without any apparent reason”.
The sum, they said, was “more than 300 times the total combined salary” of Yeung and his father.
Yeung had insisted unsuccessfully that he accumulated his hundreds of millions of dollars through stock trading, upmarket hair salons, business ventures in mainland China and investing in casinos in Macau.
Little known prior to his emergence in English football, Yeung took control of Birmingham City in 2009 in an 81-million pound ($130 million) takeover from David Sullivan and David Gold, now the co-owners of West Ham.
Yeung resigned as chairman of Birmingham International Holdings, the parent company of the English club in February but remains the leading shareholder.
The city’s court will hold a hearing next month to determine which of Yeung’s assets will be seized for the conviction.
It remains to be seen whether Yeung will appeal.