While the organisers of the Giro d'Italia were unveiling the opening stages of the 2015 race at a presentation in central Milan on Tuesday, former race director Michele Acquarone was in another part of the city in an employment tribunal, fighting for his professional reputation and personal pride.
Somewhat ironically, the 2015 Giro d'Italia will start in Acquarone's home town of San Remo. He will no doubt be there, as a spectator and fan of cycling, just as he was in Paris for the end of the Tour de France.
Acquarone has told Cyclingnews that he hopes to be back in employment and possibly back in cycling well before May next year after clearing his name. He is angry that he has become a scapegoat for the suspected fraud and refuses to stay quiet.
The likeable Italian manager was suddenly sacked by RCS Media Group last October after the Italian media company discovered a massive misappropriation of funds in the account of RCS Sport. Initial reports suggested €13 million of company funds had disappeared after money was carefully and gradually drained from several RCS Sport accounts over several years.
Acquarone has always denied any wrong doing and is not under investigation by Italian police, but was dismissed from his role of Chief Operating Officer and Director of the Giro d'Italia, with RCS suggesting he should have and could have known about the misappropriation of funds.
As a consequence of the case, CEO Giacomo Catano was also dismissed, Matteo Pastore, the head of communications and external relations at RCS Sport has apparently reached a settlement and left the company, while Laura Bertinotti, head of accounts and the key suspect in the misappropriation of funds has disappeared and is apparently living in Switzerland.
RCS Media Group was reportedly forced to inject €7 million into RCS Sport this year to keep the Italian race organizer afloat. The Giro d'Italia makes a reported €3 million a year, with other races and sporting events also contributing minor amounts to the company's balance sheet. However those profits have done little to improve the disastrous balance sheet of RCS Media Group after a series of bad investment in Spain and a poor company strategy. RCS Media Group lost €43.9 million in the first three months of 2014, has been forced to sell its historic offices in central Milan, cut staff by 20% and has written off several hundreds of millions of Euro in asset value.
Fake signatures of payment documents
RCS has recently provided Acquarone with evidence and documentation for his employment tribunal hearing, including details of signed documents that authorised the movement of millions of Euro from the central RCS Media Group accounts to minor accounts for RCS Sport.
Acquarone was legally responsible for several of these accounts but insists the money was transferred and then taken out in cash over several years without his authority. The internal investigation at RCS Sport has failed to reveal where the cash ended up.
Acquarone told Cyclingnews that the signatures and initials on documents are false and posted an example of the fake signature and his real signature on Twitter.
"I can accept losing the job I loved but I can't accept that what happened rubbishes the professional reputation that I'd built with hard work based on honesty and respect," he told Cyclingnews.
"In the last few days I've been able to read RCS's defence document. During the opening hearing a lot of documents were presented which contain what is clearly my forged signature. I've formally denied in front of the judge that the signature on the documents are mine. RCS had always refused to show me these documents until now, describing my request as 'presumptuous'. This just makes the whole case even more scandalous."
No one from RCS Media Group was available for comment when Cyclingnews requested a reaction. The company has avoided talking about the case since dismissing Acquarone, for what they say was governance reasons.
Italian police are still investigating the case but have yet to formalize any accusations. With the Italian legal system notoriously slow, any trial and appeal process could last for years.
Acquarone refuses to accept an out of court settlement and get on with is life. He wants to fully clear his name and restore his reputation. He revealed to Cyclingnews that no professional recruitment agencies will help him find a job because companies will not even consider him while he is linked to the scandal of the missing funds.
"RCS has served me up as a scapegoat without ever explaining what happened, while my image as the director of the Giro d'Italia has been thrown out of the window and created international news with a consequential disintegration of my reputation," he told Cyclingnews.
"The RCS internal report by Ernst and Young was finally presented at the preliminary hearing but just reconstructs the misappropriation, without even trying to understand how the incredible sum of over €10 million disappeared from the accounts of a company listed on the stock market without anyone noticing."