Former Giro d'Italia director Michele Acquarone has lost his legal battle against RCS Media Group for wrongful dismissal but has promised to appeal the decision and continue to fight to clear his name.
Acquarone has discovered that RCS Media Group now plans to begin legal action against him to recover some of the alleged €17 million (up from an initial €11 million) that was allegedly misappropriated from its accounts between 2006 and 2013.
Acquarone took over from Angelo Zomegnan as the head of RCS Sport in 2008 and became the head of the Giro d'Italia in 2011, bringing a wave of innovation to the Italian race and event organiser. Since being sacked, he has become the scapegoat for the missing millions but has always insisted that RCS Media Group, and not Acquarone himself, was responsible for the control and supervision of the company's finances.
"Unfortunately the judge didn't want to open a full investigation into the reasons behind my dismissal. She listened to me and to RCS and believed them. I'm awaiting the detailed verdict to understand why," Acquarone told Cyclingnews.
"The whole thing stinks. I was always praised for the work that I did and how I helped RCS Sport grow but then after it was discovered that someone had been transferring and taking money from the accounts, I was made the scapegoat."
RCS Sport is a small part of RCS Media Group, one of the most influential media companies in Italy. However like many media companies, it is in dire straits, its financial position compounded by a series of poor business decisions and the weak Italian economy. The most recent company accounts show that RCS Media Group lost €93 million in the first nine months of 2014 and now has debts totalling €515 million. RCS Sport has an annual turnover of between €45 million and €50 million per year.
Former RCS Sport Managing Director Giacomo Catano has also been fired after the discovery of the missing millions in September 2013, while Matteo Pastore, the head of Rights and External Relations, and Laura Bertinotti, responsible for administration at RCS Sport, have quietly left the company. Bertinotti had disappeared but is now alleged to be living in Switzerland.
Italian police are investigating the suspected fraud and Bertinotti's role after it emerged that she visited the bank to collect amounts of cash on a regular basis. The Italian police investigation is still ongoing, while nothing is known of the internal investigation by RCS Media Group that led to Acquarone being sacked. Acquarone is not under investigation for fraud but has been questioned as a witness by Italian police.
RCS Media Group refused to comment on the alleged misappropriation of funds when contacted by Cyclingnews.
No financial responsibility
Acquarone has always insisted he is innocent and that he was never formally responsible for financial management at RCS Sport.
"RCS thinks it can put the blame on me but the truth is that I was not responsible for controlling the company accounts, that was up to the central accounting office at RCS Media Group," Acquarone told Cyclingnews.
"I knew the amounts that were spent to organise events like the Giro d'Italia and the Milan Marathon and I knew where every penny was spent. I was never told there were problems with the finances. But €17 million was transferred from RCS Media Group to external bank accounts used for individual events and then taken out in cash without my knowledge."
"When the fraud was first discovered, in September 2013, the director of the bank said that RCS had been told of suspicious movement in the accounts back in April 2012. The manager didn't tell me at the time because I didn't formally have anything to do with managing the finances, but she told RCS Media Group and a meeting was held at the bank. What happened after the meeting? It seems nothing happened. At least nobody told me there was a problem."
Acquarone has worked briefly as a consultant since being dismissed by RCS but has yet to find a full-time position. The case has severely tarnishing his professional reputation, with companies worried about being linked to his name and asking questions about what happened.
Acquarone has his own questions.
"€17 million has disappeared but why has RCS stayed silent? Where are the real villains? What's happened to the investigation? Why isn't RCS doing anything to find out what happened. Have they got something to hide? Why am I the only one speaking out about this?" Acquarone asked.
"Maybe they think I will eventually give up and go away. But I will not rest until I clear my name."