Former Giro director Acquarone pens open letter to the media

Michele Acquarone speaks out on an ongoing legal battle that sees him pitted against his former employer, RCS Media

Former Giro d’Italia head Michele Acquarone has sent an open letter to the media with updates on his situation and the status of his ongoing legal tussle with his former employer, the RCS Sport unit of Italian conglomerate RCS Media.

The story of Acquarone’s rise in the cycling world is well-known. Joining RCS Sport in 1999, he became managing director in September 2008, with a focus on growing the company’s business in cycling, basketball, and soccer. In 2011, he shifted most of his focus to the cycling portfolio — including oversight and direct management of not only the Giro, but also RCS’s other key cycling properties, including Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche, and Giro di Lombardia. Between 2008 and 2013, Acquarone says the revenues of RCS Sport nearly doubled, up from 25 million to 47 million euros.

In mid-September of 2013, reports of financial irregularities within RCS Sport began to emerge. On September 27, the company announced a number of executive management changes in the subsidiary sports unit, and on September 30 announced that Acquarone would be temporarily suspended from his duties. There was never a clear report of what happened, but some 13 million euros apparently disappeared from the company’s coffers over, with allegations of fraudulent statements, forged signatures, and unaccounted-for cash withdrawals.

Acquarone has consistently maintained his innocence, pointing out that the RCS Sport unit had no financial or legal capabilities or responsibilities. He says that he had no capability or authority to manage or withdraw the unit’s funds. But, once the newspaper headlines essentially blared out the news — “Millions of euros disappear, giro director suspended” — Acquarone says, “In the blink of an eye, my reputation was destroyed.” At the time he was still an employee of the company, and was ordered not to speak publicly on the case. A few months later he was formally dismissed.

Acquarone claims that he has been made a scapegoat for an uncomfortable problem somewhere higher in the RCS Media operations, that the company has stone-walled any kind of open and fair investigation, and that in the process, he has been black-balled from the business. He says that he approached opportunities with other sporting entities, and that he also approached the UCI about open positions after Brian Cookson was elected the new president a little over a year ago. But he was shunned or turned away in all instances. “If I’m not welcome in Aigle, I’m not welcome in cycling,” Acquarone wrote.

As the case has slowly ground through the Italian court system, Acquarone has filed his own legal challenge against the company, in an attempt to clear his name. He says that the company has hired one of the top labor lawyers in the country to represent its interests, and to “keep the scandal away from the heart of the company.”

When contacted, RCS Sport did not wish to comment on this story.

In the past year, Acquarone has spent most of his savings to support his wife and three children, and he says that his personal financial situation is nearing critical. But he remains upbeat, saying that his conscience is clear and that life goes on.

Reached by VeloNews, Acquarone said he hopes that the lawsuit alleging his wrongful dismissal will be decided by the end of this year.

“I still have my heart and my brain, and I’ll find my way,” he wrote.

Full, original text of Acquarone’s letter

Dear friend,

before everything will be done and I’ll definitely disappear from the cycling history, there are a few things that we must clear. It’s quite a long story, please, take your time to read it carefully.

1. Since September 2008 I was the Managing Director of RCS Sport. My commitment was to grow the sports business. With my team I had to take care of RCS Sport’s properties (Giro, Sanremo, Lombardia, Tirreno, Strade Bianche, Roma Maxima, Milano Marathon) and develop new partnerships and business (i.e. RCS Sport managed the sponsorship rights of the Italian Football Federation, Inter Milan, Italian Basketball Federation; RCS Sport managed some events of the Basketball Italian League, the Italian Open in partnership with the Italian Golf Federation). That’s what I was fully committed with. 60% cycling and 40% other sports. In 5 years the turnover of RCS Sport grew from 25 to 47 million Euros.
3. Since July 2011 RCS Mediagroup entrusted me with the Direction of cycling (and of the Giro d’Italia). I had zero experience and zero network in cycling. I had to study a lot and work hard to replace Zomegnan. So I dedicated 80% of my time to cycling (90% Giro). Everything was working fine. the business was growing and the Giro (and all the other properties) was getting bigger and more important.
3. On the 16th of September 2013 an RCS MediaGroup control officer showed me a copy of a bank statement that looked forged. He was very confused and worried and he asked me to accompany him to the bank and we had proof the some official documents were forged. It was the first time I saw an RCS bank statement and it was the first time I went to the bank on behalf of RCS. The bank’s Director told us that on April 2012 she personally warned the Financial officers at RCS Mediagroup that a staggering amount of money (cash withdrawals) was gradually disappearing from the accounts of RCS Sport. We were shocked. We immediately gave the internal alarm.
4. RCS Sport had NO financial areas. RCS Sport had no Financial dept, Treasury dept, Administrative dept., Management Control dept, Tax dept, Legal and Company Business dept, HR dept, internal audit dept. All these areas where managed and controlled by the parent company RCS MediaGroup. RCS Sport was just a commercial-organizative branch and the RCS Sport CEO reported to the Publishing Manager at RCS Mediagroup. So the parent company RCS Mediagroup managed the crisis and an audit started. At that moment no one had any questions to me.
4. Ten days later, on the 27th of September, the parent company RCS MediaGroup decided to change the RCS Sport’s organization. Mr Taranto, the CFO (Chief Financial Officer of RCS MediaGroup) became also the new CEO of RCS Sport. I was nominated COO of RCS Sport (with the commitment to carry on the sports business as I did in past years) and a new CFO of RCS Sport, reporting directly to the CEO, would have been nominated soon. That same day Mr Taranto called all the staff of RCS Sport and said publicly that the change would serve to ensure greater financial control to RCS Sport. He said that formally changed my role but in essence it would not change my job and that I could continue to manage the business and the people of RCS Sport as I always did with great satisfaction by RCS MediaGroup. Then they asked me to go to the Worlds in Florence to communicate it to our stakeholders.
5. On the 30th of September the RCS MediaGroup’s Board of Directors met and decided to suspend and (then) fire me. On the 1st of October the news had been public and RCS let people understand that I was guilty. “Many millions of Euros disappeared, the Giro Director suspended”. In a blink of an eye my reputation was totally destroyed. I couldn’t even defend myself because I was still an employee at RCS and I couldn’t publicly speak without the RCS authorization. I was trapped.
6. The RCS MediaGroup’s strategy is quite clear. RCS has to protect its huge core business (the publishing business, 1,3 billion Euros) and it can’t let the Financial Department of the parent
company (the heart of the company) be involved in a big scandal. So they had to play dirty. I was the perfect scapegoat. In the last thirteen months I took all the shit on me and nobody ever talked about the parent company involvement.
7. Now it’s been more than a year and nothing changed. Media never investigated and after a while they uninterested in the story. With their silence media played into the hands of RCS. Police are slowly investigating (I wonder if they are still doing it). Millions and millions of Euros disappeared cash from the bank and there are no guilty people and not even suspected people officially. No news at all. The last news is still “money disappeared, Acquarone suspended”. It’s so frustrating because there is no escape. Can we call it a perfect Italian job?

What’s about me? In the last year I spent all my savings to feed my (3) kids, afford the monthly mortgage payment, pay my lawyers and now my personal financial situation is getting critical.

1. I have this black stain on my reputation and it’s almost impossible to find a new job. After being violently erased by RCS I was isolated. There were several open positions at the UCI within which I could continue to do my job, but all my requests were ignored and i realized that I was not welcome in Aigle. If I’m not welcome in Aigle I’m not welcome in cycling, in fact I’ve also been ignored by any race organizers or pro-team. In the other sports the music is the same. Nationally and internationally.
2. So I mounted a legal challenge of my dismissal to clear my reputation. The judge will have to decide if I have any responsibility and so if my dismissal was legitimate. I’m sure I have zero responsibilities. I did my job in the best possible way. the fraud was committed away from me. I never managed the finance, I had zero connections with the bank, the Management Control was in the parent company and in my position I would never have been able to prevent that the fraud was committed. All the responsibilities are definitely in RCS MediaGroup because they are the only one who always managed and controlled money and banks.
The RCS MediaGroup lawyers instead are saying that it doesn’t matter if somebody forged signatures, documents and statements. They say (they lie) that the Financial and Management control were under my responsibility and I have the “culpa in vigilando”. They say that I was the Managing Director so the responsibility is 100% mine.
3. It’s not RCS versus a former employee. Here it’s RCS protecting itself keeping the scandal far from the heart of the company. They don’t want the truth to go out. They just want their “scapegoat strategy” to keep on working. So RCS hired the number one labor lawyers in Italy. I just hope the judge will not be impressed by these big names. Do you know the story of David and Goliath? Well, it’s just a legend. In real life big fishes eat small fishes. Always.

Anyway now I’m fine. After a year I metabolized what happened to me. Big tragedies in life can happen, I didn’t suffer a big tragedy, I just lost my job (and my good reputation), but I still have my wife and my kids and we all are in good health. My conscience is ok. I know I always worked honestly for the good of RCS, for the good of the Giro and for the good of cycling. I know I did well to cycling and I know that if I stayed I could have helped cycling to evolve and grow much more than I did.

Of course I will go on fighting for my rights, but life goes on and I still smile when I watch my future. I have no money, I have no job, my reputation has been heavily damaged… but I still have my heart and my brain and I’ll find my way. RCS can take my job and my money, but they will never get my future.

Ciao Michele