Budapest, District VII. The massive doorway leading to the courtyard behind an old residential building can only be opened by means of a multidigit access code.The stairwell is drafty and dark; on the second floor, a security gate blocks the final meters leading to the door of John’s apartment.
This is where he lives: the whistleblower behind Football Leaks, who has been under house arrest since last week. The man who has severely shaken the football business for the past three years as a phantom using the code name “John.”His data has led to some spectacular revelations and resulted in numerous investigations throughout Europe. The whistleblower handed over more than 70 million documents, many of them marked as strictly confidential, to DER SPIEGEL, which shared the material with the research network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC). It is the largest data leak to date.
John’s real name is Rui Pinto; his lawyer revealed the identity of the whistleblower after his arrest. The 30-year-old Portuguese national is now awaiting the decision of a Hungarian court. He could face extradition to Portugal, where — a trial that might threaten his very existence.
Pinto opens the gate. He smiles bashfully.He’s wearing slippers on his feet, his trouser leg bulges out around his left ankle. “This is my new friend,” says Pinto, pointing to his electronic ankle bracelet. It contains a transmitter; the whistleblower is only allowed to leave his apartment as far as this gate.
DER SPIEGEL has traveled to Budapest together with German public broadcaster NDRand the French investigative website Mediapart. For two days, Pinto will talk about his life as a whistleblower and about the accusations against him. His apartment is tiny, one and a half rooms, with a narrow kitchen and a cramped bathroom. A rickety bed stands alongside the sofa in the living room. This is where Pinto’s parents sleep.They have come from Portugal and are giving him emotional support.
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DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Pinto, are you a hacker?
Pinto: I don’t consider myself as a hacker, but as a citizen who acted in the public interest. My sole intention was to reveal illicit practices that affect the world of football.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you tell us how you got hold of more than 70 million confidential and, in some cases, highly sensitive documents from the international football industry?
Pinto: I initiated a spontaneous movement of revelations about the football industry. So, I am not the only one involved. Over time, more and more new sources have been added, who have shared their material with me, and the database grew. This shows that there are many other people preoccupied by that matter.
DER SPIEGEL: The European arrest warrant that a Portuguese public prosecutor issued against you and which led to your arrest accuses you of cybercrime. This has to do with the club Sporting Lisbon and with the publication of confidential emails in 2015. What do you have to say about that?
Pinto: I am ready to explain all of it before judicial authorities when the time comes, but I deny this description.
DER SPIEGEL: In addition, you are accused of having used your inside knowledge to try and blackmail the agency Doyen Sports in the autumn of 2015.
Pinto: The only reason I contacted Doyen was to confirm the wrongfulness of its actions, based on the amount of money they were ready to pay to make the revelations go away.
DER SPIEGEL: That sounds like blackmail.
Pinto: No, I just wanted to see how valuable it was, how important the documents and the information were to Doyen. I thought I could find that out by learning how much Doyen was prepared to pay for my silence. I never had the intention to take the money. I only wanted to expose Doyen.
DER SPIEGEL: You even got a lawyer involved, who was supposed to arrange a deal for you. He met with the managing director of Doyen.
Pinto: I wanted to see what they would offer him. While he was negotiating, I continued to read the documents. As I did so, I told myself: If I allow them to buy me out now, I am no better than this whole business. So, I wrote to Doyen and told them to keep their money. Not a single cent was paid. What I did, was very naïve. Looking back now, I regret it. But I repeat that I deny having committed any criminal offense
DER SPIEGEL: Investigators in Portugal are also said to suspect you of having supplied FC Porto with incriminating emails from their archrival Benfica Lisbon. Did you have anything to do with that?
Pinto: I have not read any statement by the public authorities that finds any connection between me and the Benfica scandal. A magazine released the Benfica story last autumn. It changed my life. My photograph was on cover pages throughout the country. My Facebook account, my email address were subsequently inundated with death threats.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you ever made money using the power of your knowledge about the criminal dealings of the football industry?
Pinto: To give you a clear answer: no, never.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you received offers to sell your data?
Pinto: Several. Once, I received an anonymous email in which I was offered more than half a million euros. I turned them all down.
DER SPIEGEL: The lawyer who negotiated with Doyen on your behalf in 2015 had already represented you some time before in a dispute with the Caledonian Bank on the Cayman Islands. Portuguese media have reported that you stole $300,000 from this bank. Is that true?
Pinto: That is not the true story.
DER SPIEGEL: What is the true story then?
Pinto: I am not allowed to talk about the precise circumstances because I signed a nondisclosure agreement with the bank. One thing is certain: If I had committed a criminal offense, the bank would have taken me to court. The case was never brought before a court and my criminal record is clean to this day, in Portugal and everywhere else in the world.
DER SPIEGEL: Why did you pick a fight with the Caledonian Bank?
Pinto: At the time, banks in Portugal were going bankrupt; people lost their livelihoods from one day to the next. At the same time, more and more money was disappearing from Europe. Everyone could see that something was amiss. I wanted to take a closer look at things. I wanted to understand the offshore system.
DER SPIEGEL: What did you find?
Pinto: Textbook examples of how to move huge sums of money out of the country and transfer them to accounts in various tax havens. The more I looked into it, the greater my sense of injustice.
DER SPIEGEL: That kind of data could be very interesting for tax investigators.
Pinto: I know. That’s why I held onto it. That data set has a similar potential to the Panama Papers.It shows how the Cayman Islands were systematically used for money laundering and tax evasion.
DER SPIEGEL: What is happening to that data?
Pinto: I would like to share it with the investigating authorities. The documents clearly reveal the front men, the bankers, the accessories and the aids to the tax fraud.
DER SPIEGEL: Opponents of Football Leaks claim that your documents should not be used because they were obtained by illegal means.
Pinto: Others claim the data has been manipulated, falsified or taken out of context. As a result, they say, it cannot be admitted as evidence in a court of law. I think that’s nonsense. The documents are authentic. That is what matters. This and the content.
SPIEGEL: Were you pursuing a particular agenda in procuring your data?
Pinto: I researched who were the key protagonists in the crooked football business, which agents and consultants were most often involved in crooked deals. I wanted to expose those dealings.
DER SPIEGEL: Particularly at the beginning of the Football Leaks research, you had a very large number of documents on Cristiano Ronaldo.Why him?
Pinto: First of all, Ronaldo is my favorite player. I consider him the most complete football player in history. However, his behavior off the pitch needs to be judged entirely differently — in terms of criminal law.For this purpose, Football Leaks is and has been helpful. It couldn’t care less whether our favorite players or our favorite clubs are affected. Football Leaks shows that it acts really unbiased.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you see a difference between a whistleblower and a hacker?
Pinto: I do not consider myself a hacker, just as a normal computer user. In addition, I don’t think it makes any difference whether someone passes on incriminating documents from within a company to the public, or whether they do so with material they receive from outside. In the end it is about whistleblowers exposing dealings which would otherwise remain concealed from society: crimes, wrongdoing and misconduct. In the best case, whistleblowers thereby unleash a public debate and trigger investigation proceedings by the authorities.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you ever have the feeling that you were doing something illegal?
Pinto: No, not to this day. Over the years, the European Parliament, media throughout Europe and many investigative authorities have examined my data. I am convinced that what I did was the right thing.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you never have doubts?
Pinto: I did. Especially because I didn’t always agree with the outcome. The investigating authorities, in particular, often disappointed me. Take the systematic tax evasion by the football industry inSpain. Here, the investigators were almost always happy to cash in a few million euros, and they never really penetrated the root of the evil. Agents, lawyers, bankers: They all went unchallenged. Yet they are the ones pulling the strings; they were the ones who set up these fraud schemes.
DER SPIEGEL: How did you react?
Pinto: I kept going. I believed that, at some point, something would have to change.
DER SPIEGEL: You once said that your role models were Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Antoine Deltour, the well-known whistleblowers of the recent past. Do you feel that you rank among them?
Pinto: I don’t wish to compare myself. I never did all this for my ego, I don’t need this attention. It was never about becoming the world’s greatest whistleblower, but about exposing as many wrongdoings as possible. Whistleblowers only exist because of the numerous unlawful practices that are perpetrated in our societies.
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