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Ten months after he was abruptly fired by RCS Sport, former COO Michele Acquarone had his day in court this week, tackling his former employers in an unfair dismissal case.
The former Giro d’Italia chief squared up against the Italian company and will find out next week if a quick decision will be made in relation to his firing, or if the judge will require more time and witness testimony before she can reach a decision.
Acquarone told CyclingTips this week that he is greatly frustrated by the situation and that, as things stand, that his reputation has been destroyed by the manner in which RCS Sport acted in October of last year.
“Do I feel betrayed? Yes, I feel like a scapegoat,” he states, speaking by telephone from his home in Milan. “It is not fair that they act this way, and I must fight it.”
The Italian took over as the helm of the Giro d’Italia following the sacking of the previous race director Angelo Zomegnan in 2011. He was seen by many teams and fans as progressive, helping the race to expand its profile and reach, and also ushering in changes to the route which imposed less transfer demands on the riders.
However in early October of last year Acquarone was sidelined from his position as head of the Giro d’Italia and the COO of RCS Sport, as was former RCS CEO Giacomo Catano. The suspensions were carried out after RCS Sport said that a possible misappropriation of thirteen million euro had been was detected and that an audit would be carried out.
In the fallout from that, administrative director Laura Bertinotti quit her role, media relations director Matteo Pastore, was also suspended and the chairman Flavio Biondi was replaced by Raimondo Zanaboni.
Mauro Vegni has since taken over in Acquarone’s former slot. The latter was fired in December and reacted by launching an unfair dismissal case. He has also lodged a claim for defamation against RCS Sport, on the grounds that the manner of his dismissal caused his reputation harm.
No date has yet been set for the defamation case but round one of the unfair dismissal hearing took place in July. The next phase began on Wednesday of this week, and saw Acquarone meet up with RCS Sport for the first time.
“I was there with my lawyer and RCS came with six different lawyers. I didn’t have any chance to speak with them, I just said hello.
“I don’t think it is a fight between men, I just have to save my reputation. I need to do everything I have to do to let people know that I didn’t do anything wrong, that I was trying to do my job in the best way possible.
“When I saw Taranto [RCS Sport Chairman Riccardo Taranto] it was really bad, but I just said ‘hello,’ and he said, ‘good luck.’ That was it.
Asked if he felt he had been treated badly by Taranto, he is unequivocal that this is the case. “I definitely feel betrayed. On the Friday [before his dismissal – ed.] he said to me that I was the person he trusted and that I should please go to Florence, to the worlds, and that I should talk to every stakeholder, and say that everything is under control. That they don’t have to worry. That everything would be all right.
“I went to the worlds and then I went back [to the office] on Monday. He said to me, ‘oh there are some problems as the shareholders are worried about the parent company and they have to act very hard against RCS Sport.
“I said, ‘come on, please don’t do crazy things. But then I was suspended and I never had the chance to speak to him any more.
“So, do I feel betrayed? Yes, so much. So much. I feel like a scapegoat. I hate to be held responsible for everything….it is not possible that they can do this.”
“How can they fire me? I couldn’t do anything to control it”
Facts are scarce about what precisely went wrong inside the company, not least about how millions of euro went missing. Acquarone has denied any involvement from the off, and elaborated this week on why he rejects the way he was treated by RCS Sport.
He has two main points of defence; his contention that he could not have known that the theft was happening, and also his insistence that the manner of his dismissal caused serious damage to his reputation.
He spoke at length to CyclingTips about both points. As regards the first, he insists that the structure of the company means that he couldn’t have been involved in the missing funds.
“In this case, the judge will have to decide if I have some responsibility for what happened, because I was the managing director of the company,” he says.
“If somebody took the money inside the company, there is a kind of objective responsibility of the big boss. But what I told the judge is that I have zero responsibilities because in RCS Sport we didn’t have any control of the administration and treasury of the company.
“Everything about the cash and the connections with the case were controlled directly from the parent company. It controlled everything about the administration. So if somebody inside of RCS Sport took the money away, it cannot be my responsibility [to have spotted it] as I didn’t have the chance to control the cash from the banks.”
“I was the director of the company, but in my responsibility there was just the commercial business and the sport business, not the administration business. And everybody knows that.”
Acquarone said that he made that point clear to the judge in the hearing. “If the controller, the administration, the treasury, the relationship with the bank were all in the parent company, how can they fire me? I couldn’t do anything to control it.”
Acquarone also rejects the claims that he signed off on the cash in question; he told CyclingTips in July that his signature on documents was forged, tweeting out a picture of the documents, and reiterated that point this week.
“There were many signatures on the documents that RCS took to the judge. Many signatures where they say Michele Acquarone authorised a lot of withdrawals when the money disappeared,” he states. “They say ‘he is responsible because he authorised for someone to take the money away.’
“But I’ve told judge is that the signatures are not mine, they are totally fake. The judge will probably have to call an expert to decide if the signature is mine or not; looking at them, I don’t think you even need an expert to see that they are totally different to mine.”
“My career, my reputation is irreversibly destroyed”
Even if RCS Sport argues that he should in some way have been able to spot that something was amiss within the company – a point he rejects – Acquarone is even more adamant about another aspect: that he has suffered very considerable damage to his reputation in the manner in which he departed the company.
At the time RCS Sport didn’t give the reasons why it had handed him his notice. It didn’t explain why it felt he was no longer able to do his job and had to fall on his sword.
He had a job, then he was suspended. Several weeks later, he was gone.
Many months later, Acquarone is still very angry about what happened. “The second problem with what they did is they fired me in a very bad way; I was suspended, and then they made everyone understand that I could be the thief. Yet nobody inside of the company ever thought that. It was just a strategy to keep things very far from the parent company.
“Who cares if the scandal has involved the Giro d’Italia, as the Giro is such a small thing for the shareholders? They only care about the big company, the parent company, the RCS Media group and all the publishing business.”
Acquarone’s contention is that the scandal is linked to that bigger company and that a decision was taken that a sacrifice should be made to try to prevent wider repercussions.
“What I can tell you is that I was suspended on Tuesday the 1st of October 2013. On Monday, one day before, I had my last meeting with Mr Taranto, who is the CFO of the parent company, and now is also the president of RCS Sport.
“He told me, ‘I am really sorry, Michele, because something really bad is going to happen. The shareholders said to me, “Mr Taranto, can we close the Giro d’Italia, can we close RCS Sport to have no problems with the parent company?”’
“That is what he said to me the day before I was suspended. The next day, they changed their strategy and they just said ‘we suspended the Giro director, we will keep all the attention on RCS Sport.’ In this way the parent company was safer.”
A separate police investigation is being held and is looking into the details of what was taken, how it was done and who was responsible. Acquarone said that he was interviewed once last December and not contacted again; he claims that the police have already told him that he is not a suspect.
He says that he hopes that they can come to a conclusion quickly, but knows that it could take some time.
“Of course I want the police to be quick and fast. I would like it if we could have feedback as soon as possible,” he explains. “But in the meanwhile I cannot be responsible for this thing as I never controlled the money of the company.
“What happens now is that the judge will take one week to think about everything. She will decide then if she is ready to make final ruling, or if the process needs to continue so that she can speak with witnesses.”
In the meantime, Acquarone will do what he has done since he was first suspended: he will wait, watching the seconds and minutes roll past. He will spend time at home, wondering if and when he will work again. He will feel frustration that he can’t provide for his family.
While he’s done some consultancy work in recent months, he has no permanent job and says he doesn’t know what his prospects are. He says wryly that he might face a future as a waiter in Milan.
“For me the damage to my reputation is the worst thing,” he explains. “I could accept losing my job. Of course I loved it, and I had a lot of success in it. I could be very disappointed to lose it. But I could accept it.
“But to lose it like this, I cannot accept that as my reputation as gone. Now I have no chances to go on with my career. My career, my reputation is irreversibly destroyed. If they acted like that just to save the parent company, it is simply not legal. They cannot do that.”