Fired three and a half years ago from his role as Giro d’Italia race director, Michele Acquarone has said that progress is being made in the court case relating to financial irregularities at RCS Sport. However he fears that a long wait could be in store before the full truth emerges.
Speaking to CyclingTips, the 45 year old Italian reaffirmed his innocence and said that he was looking forward to the case unearthing more details about how 17 million euro went missing.
“Last November the trial was supposed to start but it didn’t,” he said in recent days. “It was postponed many times. I know that last Friday [April 21], for the very first time during the trial a witness was listened to. The witness was Mr [Riccardo] Taranto, the new RCS Media Group CFO. He was the first person who spoke during the process.
“I spoke with my lawyers and they said it was a very long interview. A lot of questions and a lot of answers. He spent one day just to speak about the case. And now maybe everything will be a little bit faster.
“But when I say faster, it means that it is very difficult that something will be clear before 2018. It means that probably I have to wait four or five years to understand what was going on.”
Acquarone started working for RCS Mediagroup in 2004 and moved to RCS Sport in September 2008. He 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 millions of euro had been 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. The company 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. He worked on and off as a consultant since then, but didn’t have a steady income. He finally found a new role in January of this year.
In the meantime, he tried to fight back. Acquarone took an unfair dismissal case against RCS Sport, but this was dismissed by a judge in November 2014.
He said that the judge didn’t open the process nor interview any witness, and so he lodged a complaint against this decision.
Acquarone also took a defamation case. This is still pending, as is a criminal investigation by the police.
He clarified the current state of things.
“In that big trial, which is a criminal trial, there are many different cases. There is one case about the fraud, relating to somebody stealing money. Then there is a fiscal case, because in the company the books were not regular. They are investigating that; it is a matter of taxes. And that is the reason why I am involved in the process.
“And then there is a third case. It is where I sued the company because of defamation. I am still waiting to listen to everybody and I hope that the court can understand what was going on and give justice to everybody.”
‘If the whistleblower is fined, it means there is something wrong’
From Acquarone’s perspective, he insists he has tried to help the truth be uncovered. He previously told CyclingTips that he went to speak to the police in December 2013, asking them to investigate the matter.
In July 2014 Acquarone strongly challenged RCS Sport’s claims that he authorised the payments of millions of euros. He accused persons unknown of forging his signature, and released photos of signed documents which appear to differ from his own signature.
He also said that the payments should have been picked up by the company’s internal controls.
Almost three years later he maintains his innocence.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “There is a very lovely word in English…it is whistleblower. I was the man who gave the alarm. If the whistleblower is fired, it means that in the company there is something wrong.
“If I am the one to say to everybody, ‘please take care of a problem because somebody is stealing money in the company’ and, without any investigation, without any question, the company fires the whistleblower, then probably they don’t want anybody to investigate it. They don’t want anybody to investigate. They don’t want anybody to speak about that.
“And that is the most frustrating thing. If I was fired because of something that I did wrong, I can accept it, of course. But if I was fired just because I gave the alarm to the company that somebody was stealing money, then I cannot accept it.”
Acquarone was seen as a progressive manager of the Giro d’Italia. He tried to modernise the race and to try to close the gap between it and the Tour de France. Under him the race became more adept at using social media and grew in prominence.
It seemed that the event would continue to thrive under him, but then he was gone.
He said that he has experienced a range of emotions since his dismissal.
“At the beginning it was rage. Big rage. Then it was just frustration. Now I am okay… I am fine. I can still speak about RCS, about the Giro. I went to the Milano San Remo start to say hello to everybody. Now I feel comfortable again. I forgot the rage.
“But I just want to know…I am just curious to know why they acted like that. They acted very bad with me. I have been working with them for 13 years, just trying to do my best, and they thrashed me like nothing. That was very sad.
“If they acted like that, it is because there is something big, very bad, that they are trying to cover up. I still cannot understand what happened.”
Following his dismissal, Acquarone was on the sidelines for quite some time. He then did some advisory work with Zwift, hoping that it would translate into something more permanent with the online platform.
However those initial collaborations never led to a long-term role. They reflect the damage that was done to his reputation, and something he is still trying to address via his legal action against RCS Sport.
“Zwift was a very good opportunity,” he says. “But I remember in 2014 when I should get involved in Zwift, and [CEO] Eric Min said, ‘Michele, I am sorry. We cannot do it. Our shareholders don’t want you to be involved because you have a black stain on your professional career and we don’t want any risk.’
“It was like that all the time. I had different big possibilities but I never had the opportunity to start to work again.”
“The last one was the NBA, the National Basketball Association. It was looking for a person to manage the south of Europe. The headhunter called me to say, ‘everybody says that you could be the right person, but we need to know what is going on with RCS.’ When I had to say that everything was still open, they said, ‘I am sorry, but NBA is a risk-free company and so we cannot do anything with you.’
“But now finally I am okay.”
In January he began to work with Finearte, an Italian auction house for art. He had initial talks in January with the shareholders and they saw things differently to the previous companies.
“Of course the first thing that I said to all of them is that I had troubles with RCS,” he states. “They said, ‘we don’t care because we know that you are an honest person. We know that you are a good manager and we want you to run our company.’
“It was very important that after three and a half years, somebody was still trusting me and giving me the opportunity to do my job in the best way possible with 100 percent trust. It is great, definitely great.”
Acquarone’s goal with the company is to grow it and to try to help it gain some ground on the global auctioneering firms such as Christie’s and Sothebys. They are far bigger, but over time he hopes to expand Finarte.
“When the shareholders called me, they said we know you are good at taking little things and making them bigger.
“My commitment is to try to make it bigger in a few years. I believe it is great because when you are a manager, it is always better when you can work on a development project and not just cutting costs, cutting people. I don’t like that. I prefer when I can invest and try to do something bigger.”
While he has been in the role since the middle of January, his position on the board became official last Wednesday. As CEO he’s moving on with his life, but still wants to sort out the past.
“It is great because I spent the last three and a half years just waiting for a new opportunity. Now a very good opportunity finally came.
“Before it was very bad, because if I couldn’t work, I had to just wait for the trial. It was very frustrating. Now at least I can start to work again and so that means that my reputation maybe will be okay again.
“But I am still waiting for justice…”