OFFSHORE investors based in some of the world's most notorious tax havens are buying up stakes in Scottish football clubs.

A Sunday Herald investigation has revealed that anonymously held offshore companies have stakes in at least four Scottish clubs. However, the clubs affected are refusing to discuss offshore ownership, or the issue of potential tax avoidance.

READ MORE: Tax Justice Network author insists controversial report 'focuses more on SFA than Rangers'

We have identified substantial offshore shareholdings in Celtic, currently the nation's richest and most successful club. Rival Glasgow team Rangers also has secretive investors, some formally registered offshore.

Two other well known Scottish teams, the Premiership's Dundee and the Championship's Dumbarton, are also refusing to comment on where key non-UK shareholdings in both clubs are ultimately owned.

Offshore owners can avoid capital gains tax if they ever sell stakes in clubs, which often control valuable urban real estate, such as stadiums and training grounds, as well as their brand rights.

Fan groups are concerned about the developments. Paul Goodwin of the Scottish Football Supporters Association explained: "We all live in a democracy and people should be paying the right level of tax. We also want to make sure we know and understand who owns our football clubs. That is critical. How can we be assured that the clubs are in safe hands if these owners are shadowy businesses that we don't know enough about?"

CELTIC

Due to Celtic's status as a Public Limited Company, it is expected to operate transparently. As a PLC, the Parkhead-based giants are traded on the stock exchange, and anyone can buy shares and - technically - go over their books. But supporters, even as they enjoy the high of a fifth consecutive Premiership title and an ambitious new manager in former Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers, can't be quite sure who actually calls the shots at Celtic Park.

HeraldScotland: Celtic Park will be getting a standing section

That is because some two-fifths of the PLC's shares - by market capitalisation, or the value on business on the stock market - are held offshore. These include three substantial holdings in the name of an account in Gibraltar, Line Nominees.

This business - one of many that acts as nominal shareholder for either the convenience or the privacy of the real owners - is believed to represent the man usually described as Celtic's biggest single investor, Dermot Desmond.

Desmond, an Irish citizen, lists his address in Celtic accounts as a marina in Gibraltar, the British outpost in the Mediterranean that is one of the world's most successful tax havens.

Picture: Dermot Desmond and Celtic Chief Executive Peter Lawwell

HeraldScotland: Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell discuss events at Celtic Park

Desmond, 65, was named in the Panama Papers - a massive dump of documents from the Panama law firm, Mossack Fonseca, that has brought renewed focus on the use and abuse of offshore accounts and companies to avoid tax. Desmond made no comment on this revelation - nor did Celtic FC. Being named in the Panama Papers or being found to hold assets or shares offshore is not evidence of wrongdoing.

Line Nominees - which operates a perfectly legal business - was also named in the Panama Papers.

According to Celtic's website, the firm holds 5,131,300 or 32 per cent of the club's 60p convertible cumulative preference shares; 32,772,073 or 35 per cent of its 1p ordinary shares and 8,000,000 or 61 per cent of its preferred convertible preferred ordinary shares. At current market prices, that represents roughly £38m worth of stock.

Desmond, who is said to be a billionaire, has been reported as owning other interests through Line Nominees.

However, Line Nominees is not the only offshore entity with an at least nominal shareholding in Celtic. Another firm whose named cropped up in the Panama Papers, Hanom 1 Limited, whose address is a post box in St Helier, the capital of British offshore haven Jersey, has 625,000 of the £1 shares.

A Swiss firm called Telsar Holdings SA Depfyffer and Associes has another 1,600,000 such shares. A London-based nominee wing of the Bank of New York also formally holds substantial stock. Only shareholdings of more than three per cent in any kind of stock is declared.

The Sunday Herald asked Celtic if it could identify the 'ultimate beneficial owners' - the official expression for what is in layman's terms the 'real owners' - of all these companies. It did not respond. We also asked Celtic if it thought offshore ownership was suitable for football clubs. It did not reply.

Supporters' group Celtic Trust, however, did have a view. In a statement, it stressed that the current open structure of the club meant its shares could be bought and sold by anyone, based anywhere.

It said: "We are fundamentally opposed to the PLC structure as the ownership and governance model for Celtic Football Club. The reality is that the imperatives of a PLC encourage low pay, can involve the use of legal but anti-social tax avoidance schemes by major shareholders and other behaviours which are at odds with the history and ethics of our club.

"The model also leaves us vulnerable to take over by single individuals based anywhere in the world who see the club as a rich man's toy or worse."

RANGERS

Celtic's rivals Rangers are also run by a PLC, although it is a new business established after the club went under in 2012. The old business had been bought by the Scottish investor Craig Whyte based out of one tax haven, Monaco, using an investment vehicle, Liberty Capital, registered in British Virgin Islands.

The population of both statelets could comfortably fit in to the club's home ground, Ibrox.

HeraldScotland: FANS who smoke face the boot from Ibrox

The new Rangers corporate entity, Rangers International Football Club PLC, in its latest annual return lists a series of nominee companies and admits these are not the 'ultimate beneficial owners'. However, last year more detailed ownership figures were published. The club last year blocked four minority shareholding companies from voting until they could show who owned them. They were Blue Pitch Holdings, Putney Holdings Limited, ATP Investments Limited, and Norne Anstalt.

There has also been mystery over the ultimate ownership of another business with a stake in Rangers, Margarita Trust Holdings Ltd, believed to be registered in the Turks and Caicos.

The Sunday Herald asked Rangers to clarify whether it could identify the ultimate ownership of Margarita and Blue Pitch entities. It did not respond. We asked if it thought offshore ownership was suitable for a football club. It did not reply.

DUNDEE

So much for the 'Light Blues' of Rangers. Dundee - 'the Dark Blues' - were no more forthcoming. The football Club after years of off-the-pitch corporate ups and downs was subject to what was reported as an American-led takeover in 2013.

Its biggest single shareholder is now a business called Football Partners Scotland LP, which is not listed at Britain's Companies House. The Sunday Herald made repeated attempts to ask the club where this entity was registered so we could check whether its ownership was offshore. We were referred to numerous individuals, including the club's American-born chairman, John Nelms, none of whom returned calls or emails.

Picture: Dens Park, home of Dundee FC

HeraldScotland: Dens Park

Eventually Dundee FC's public relations officer did respond, however, he said that he would not be able to provide the information requested. It has been widely reported that shares are ultimately held by a Texan concern called Keyes Capital. A member of the Keyes family, Timothy Keyes, sits on the club's board.

DUMBARTON

Transparency problems do not just plague the clubs of Scotland’s top flight. Fan groups have serious concerns about the ownership of Dumbarton FC - one of Scotland’s oldest clubs and one of the most successful semi-professional sides in the country.

Currently in the second-tier Championship, Dumbarton is a classic community institution, with a relatively new stadium in the shadow of the Rock - the volcanic plug at the confluence of the Clyde and the Leven, that defines its town.

HeraldScotland: 08/04/15 LADBROKES CHAMPIONSHIP
DUMBARTON v HIBERNIAN
BET BUTLER STADIUM - DUMBARTON
Dumbarton's William Gibson celebrates having put his side back in front  (34590045)Dumbarton’s ownership is far from usual. Rather than a long list of local supporters or businesses, its shareholding is dominated by a single firm with a classic shell company name, Brabco736. This company has held around three-quarters of Dumbarton’s stock since 2008 and has two wholly-owned subsidiaries, Denny’s Homes, incorporated in 2008, and DFC Community Stadium Limited, which was set up in 2014.

READ MORE: Background: Scotland as an offshore tax haven

Denny’s was the name of a shipyard that once sat next to where Dumbarton currently play. Its site is now being redeveloped as part of a major transformation of the whole town.

Dumbarton FC officials have mooted selling their current site, right below the rock, and moving to a greenfield area out of town. Housebuilding and football-club owning entity Brabco736 would be the key player in this.

The owner of Brabco736 is a company called Granada Enterprises Limited. There is no such British company listed in Companies House. Some company information sites, such as Endole, list Granada Enterprises as based in Belize, one of the most notorious tax havens in the Caribbean.

Picture: Dumbarton Rock

HeraldScotland: Imposing Dumbarton Rock and its historic Dumbarton Castle are framed by the gorse bushes on the banks of the Clyde estuary in today's picture, taken by Evening Times reader Alan David, from Paisley.<p>Do you have a picture you'd like to share? E-mail your

The Sunday Herald made numerous attempts to ask both the club and Brabco736 to clarify its ultimate ownership. The club failed to respond to requests for interview. We called its chairman, Alan Jardine, at home. Asked about Brabco, he said he had approached an unnamed existing director to buy out Dumbarton amid concerns about "predator investors".

Jardine added: "I brought him on board to save the club. Things are not always the way they seem to be. I was extremely worried about who might be the ultimate purchasers. He [the director] got some friends on board and purchased the major shareholding. The club on that basis was saved."

We tried to ask Jardine whether he believed Dumbarton FC was now effectively owned in Belize. "That is nothing to do with Dumbarton Football Club,” he said. “That is to do with Brabco." Asked if he thought offshore ownership was suitable for a community club, Jardine said "no comment" and put down the phone.

The Sunday Herald understands that the director Jardine was referring to was Callum Hosie, who has been on the club's board since 2002. Hosie is also a director of Brabco736, Denny’s Homes and DFC Community Stadium Limited.

Hosie failed to return calls from the Sunday Herald at his home in Lancashire, England. Another director of Brabco736 is Cheshire-based Andrew Hosie. He was also a director of gambling firm Bet Butler, which is currently in liquidation and previously lent its name to Dumbarton’s current ground.

READ MORE: Tax Justice Network author insists controversial report 'focuses more on SFA than Rangers'

Paul Goodwin of the Scottish Supporters Association said: “Dumbarton is the club that is giving us the most concern, given that a vast shareholding is unclear. It is back to that transparency thing. How can the punters who go along every week understand what is going on? If something is offshore, we have to ask "why?"."

Picture: Dumbarton's current stadium under a previous name

HeraldScotland: MOVING?: Dumbarton FC have lodged proposals to move from the iconic Rock

Alison Johnstone MSP, Scottish Greens sport spokesperson, said: “Given the importance of football to our culture, our communities and our economy, it’s vital that we see fan ownership becoming the norm rather than the exception. Clubs whose ownership is unclear would do well to clarify who is benefitting from their business, and whether the appropriate taxes are being paid. Fans deserve an honest account of who they are really supporting.”

Do you know of a Scottish business or property owned in an overseas tax haven? Or of a Scottish company used as a vehicle to avoid tax overseas? Then please contact me, David Leask, at david.leask@theherald.co.uk

How this story looked in print:

HeraldScotland: