Acquarone: I feel like a cycling whistleblower who was fired, then accused of doping

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Almost two years after he was fired from his role with Giro d’Italia organisers RCS Sport, former race director Michele Acquarone has repeated calls for a full investigation into a missing 17 million Euro and reiterated claims that he is a scapegoat.

The Italian, who was suspended along with others in October 2013 and then sacked two months later, has been trying to clear his name ever since.

He claims he is fully innocent and says that there appears to be no urgency to determine those who took the money.

“This is like a situation in cycling. Everybody knows about the doping problem,” he told CyclingTips in a long telephone interview. “Sometimes I feel I’m seen like one of the doped athletes who said they didn’t do anything wrong, and then you have all the people who say you are a cheater.

“But what I am saying is I am not like that. I was not one of these guys. I am like the guy who found out that in the team somebody was cheating, I reported it, yet I was fired. And now everybody thinks I was a doper. And that is crazy.”

Acquarone stated that money first started to go missing in 2006, three years before he joined RCS Sport. He said that he is determined to clear his public image and get back to working as he was before.

“I hope as soon as possible that everything will be okay and we will find out who were the real criminals. There were some criminals in RCS – maybe they are still there – who stole a lot of money. I don’t want to be a scapegoat for those people.”

Still at point zero

Acquarone started working for RCS Sport in September 2008, and took over as head of the Giro d’Italia in 2011.

However in October 2013 he was sidelined from his position, 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, media relations director Matteo Pastore was also suspended, the chairman Flavio Biondi was replaced by Raimondo Zanaboni and employee Laura Bertinotti quit her role.

The wave of suspensions was huge news, as was Acquarone’s subsequent firing in December 2013. That sent shockwaves throughout the sport, not least because of what was his positive public image.

He had been seen by many teams and fans as progressive and someone who had done much to modernise and popularise the race.

RCS Sport never clarified the reasons for his dismissal. It was unclear if it suspected him of being actually involved in the disappearance of the money or, rather, if it felt he had to go as the theft happened under his watch.

Either way, while he has not been found guilty of anything at this point in time, his ability to earn a living has been seriously affected.

Michele Acquarone, former Director of the Giro d'Italia
Michele Acquarone, former Director of the Giro d’Italia

Unsurprisingly, he tried to fight back. He took an unfair dismissal case against RCS Sport. This was dismissed by a judge in November 2014; according to Acquarone, the judge didn’t open the process nor interview any witness, and so he lodged a complaint against this decision.

He also took a defamation case. This is still pending, as is a criminal investigation by the police. In the meantime he says that he is stuck in limbo.

“It is incredible. You cannot believe it. Two years have passed and we are still at point zero. Nothing happened at all. I know that this is the game that RCS is playing, because they are just trying to cover everything. But I cannot accept it.

“I am trying to do my best to shout around, but my voice alone is nothing. Nobody cares.”

What’s clear is that the situation has affected his life. He told CyclingTips that he has been doing some consultancy work when he can, but that he has been unable to find a regular job. He gave an example of a recent interview he had for a position with a prominent international company, which was seeking to find someone to develop business in Europe and the Middle East.

“The person called me because he said that many people he talked to had spoken very well about me. He said that everybody says the same, that if you want to have a good manager, please speak with Michele.

“He asked me, ‘are you available?’ Of course, I said, it is dream for me to come back to sports. So we had a half an hour interview, which went very well. Then he said, what about your RCS controversy? I told him the next hearing will be in December.

“He said, I am sorry, but the NBA is a risk-free company and we cannot go on. When everything is done, just call me back because I will help you to find a different job.”

Acquarone recently sent out a statement trying to highlight his situation and to call on media and authorities to push for the truth.

In acting this way, he’s doing one of two things. He’s either playing an audacious game of bluff, daring people to uncover a truth which could implicate him, or he’s exactly what he says he is: someone who is innocent of the theft, but who has been unfairly stigmatised.

Acquarone_beach

“Nobody wants to go against RCS”

One week after he issued his statement on October 1, Acquarone staid on Twitter that he had a lack of response from media. Asked by CyclingTips why he felt this was the case, he said that he had been told by journalists that their editors had little appetite for the story.

“There are two levels. One is cycling, and the Giro and the cycling business. The other one is the criminal level, where the general media should investigate and try to understand what is happening there,” he said.

“I imagine that sport journalists are not the people who have to investigate there.

“That is why I tried to reach in many different ways the mass media and the economic or criminal journalists just to say, ‘what has happened?’ They always said, ‘Michele, you are a nice guy, but I am sorry, we cannot do it.’

“‘The editor in chief said that it is not a business for us.’ The journalists say that my director does not want to speak about that, it is not our business.

“Even when I sent my little messages around, it is always somebody from the UK or the US, somebody from the international media who gives me a call. It should be the Italians who do something, but they don’t. I imagine it is just because the RCS power is too big and nobody wants to go against RCS.”

“It’s a never ending story”

Acquarone knows that the most likely way for the source of the missing money to be found is via the criminal investigation. He believes that only then the full story will emerge. However the wheels of the Italian legal system have been moving slowly.

“I went to speak to the police in December 2013,” he said. “I said there is a problem, someone was cheating the company. I said I reported that somebody was cheating yet I was fired, so there is a problem. Please investigate, because something is wrong. I told them everything I knew about the company, everything.”

He said that waited for over a year to hear back from the police. When he did, he said that they told him that he and all the other top management in the company were under suspicion as they had found out there was irregular accounting.

“I said, ‘when we go to trial, I can speak and I can call some witnesses to speak with me and we can see what was going on down there.’

“I asked them when the trial will be, and they said very soon. Now I know that the very first act of the criminal proceedings will be on December 17.”

Needless to say, he’s not happy it has taken this long. “Two years have passed and we are still at point zero. We are still waiting for the very first act where the judge will decide who has to go to trial.

“What I understand is that usually it will take six months between one hearing and another one. If I am lucky, it will be very soon. If I am not lucky, it will be in June. Then December again. It is a never-ending story.

“It’s the same for the defamation case I took…they said they were working together, both cases will happen at the same time.

“I am really annoyed because it is taking years. I just dreamed to come back to do the job that I love, and I am still here waiting. It looks like Waiting for Godot, that you wait and wait and wait for nothing.

“I am just waiting. I see my life going on like that…it is really crazy.”

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