Banaszek remains at the helm of Polish Cycling Federation as questions mount

Cycling federation in Poland facing funding cut, credibility crisis

Dariusz Banaszek remained the president of the Polish Cycling Federation (PZKol) after a heated debate during federations' extraordinary general meeting of the delegates in Pruszków.

Delegates of all regions vote every four years to elect a new president and board, although this year the extraordinary meeting turned into a heated discussion about federation's management, with officials reading out private text messages and accusing each other of various wrongdoings.

With 74 delegates present, Banaszek received a strong mandate – 16 delegates were in favour of his dismissal, 48 opposed, and 5 abstained.

Banaszek, who was elected president last December, today faced scrutiny over handling the federation's financial operations and managing the crisis that in the recent months rocked Polish cycling.

The meeting came almost a month after allegations of past financial malpractice and sustained sexual abuse by a former employee of the federation were brought to light by an audit conducted in the fall of 2017. While its official findings never went public, some of its contents were disclosed in late November to Sportowe Fakty by former federation vice-president Piotr Kosmala.

The disclosure sparked a massive outcry both from government officials. Poland's Ministry of Sports and Tourism started looking into the federation's operations, and minister Witold Banka called upon the whole board to resign, demanding a "total reset". He also suspended ministerial funding and the federation has subsequently undergone a number of controls from state institutions and its own audit commission.

The UCI has urged PZKol to cooperate with the authorities and said it will be monitoring the situation.

Banaszek, who earlier this month promised to resign at the general meeting, today, after almost five hours of a debate, refused to do so. As a result, instead of the elections, a vote of no-confidence took place. With 48 delegates opposing Banaszek's dismissal, only the elections of the board members followed.

Banaszek thanked the officials and declared that he will seek to rebuild the relationship with the ministry. He offered no specific solutions but acknowledged that if the talks fail and the ministry insists on his departure, he will step down.

"We care greatly about the ministry and its support, I believe the cooperation will be as good as it was already this year," he said in the aftermath of the elections. "I want to meet with the minister, perhaps he finds a moment for me. If the position of the authorities doesn't change, I assume I won't have a place in here," he stated, confirming that he will step down if the talks fail.

Banka took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the voting and said that the funding for the athletes in 2018 will be channelled through Polish Olympic Committee, not PZKol.

Winter war

The crisis began in the summer of 2017 when changes to the performance team were made by Banaszek. Revelations published mainly by Sportowe Fakty brought to light a number of problems, including complaints about Banaszek's management style, changes to the performance team, and an audit containing sensitive information and allegations of criminal nature.

In the media storm that followed, Banaszek was accused of mishandling the crisis, stopping the audit and not acting upon its preliminary results.

He defended his actions in a number of interviews, denying having any knowledge of the audit's preliminary contents.

"I wanted to investigate the matter through an audit, not rumours. I didn't know and I don't know the audit findings. I asked for the results on multiple occasions but to the day, I didn't receive any. My knowledge of the findings is based on press revelations," he said during a press conference on December 1.

As the majority of the board followed the minister's call and resigned, Banaszek refused Banka's request to immediately step down but promised to do so in front of the delegates. During the conference he would not take questions from the press but read out a lengthy statement, talking about the audit in more detail.

"I think, judging by the media stories, we're talking about a period of 2007-2012. I first heard about it in July/August, I was told by Dariusz Milek. He convinced me to conduct an audit and offered to pay for it. We didn't want it for the public but for eliminating this individual from the environment. At the time it seemed that there could be some ethical concerns, not criminal offences."

"The matter has nothing to do with the current board," Banaszek noted.

He reaffirmed these statements during the extraordinary general meeting of the delegates and vowed to work with both the sponsors and the ministry.

Who knew

Banaszek's claims about having no knowledge of auditors' actions were undermined by several media publications. These demonstrate that the president was aware of the direction in which the investigation was going.

A day before the conference, Sportowe Fakty published a short recording of the September board meeting in which Banaszek is heard shouting about the allegations.

At the conference, Banaszek said that the extract proves that he emotionally refused to publicly discuss rumours.

On December 2, Rowery.org published excerpts of correspondence from November 3, which demonstrate that Banaszek stopped the meeting between the board and the auditors, despite protests from the majority of its members. In the same publication, two unnamed board members claimed that the president and vice-president had had knowledge of the ongoing investigation before any other board members.

"We were made aware of the information now published by the media by the president during the board meeting," one of the former board members remembered. "There were questions about changes to the performance team, and he told us pretty much what Kosmala told the media. He shouted it out to us, he got angry."

Financial straits

Banaszek's conference on December 1 was soon followed by a ministerial media briefing in which Banka called federation president's statements "ridiculous".

"Our position remains unchanged. We are not interested who works with whom, who belongs to what fraction. They all have to go, there needs to be a complete reset," Banka said firmly.

Banka also revealed that Polish Cycling Federation failed to submit its financial statement for 2017.

"These people were so busy preparing their conference that they forgot about their basic duty – filing a financial statement. The deadline passed yesterday. It shows you how professional they are about the job."

In response, the Polish Cycling Federation published a letter it sent to the ministry. It had asked for more time to prepare the statement for the second half of 2017, citing "unexpected events that impinge on daily work of the federation". The letter was sent on the last day of the deadline and, according to Banaszek, an extension was approved by the ministry.

Banka's decision, while praised by some as a decisive step against wars among conflicted board members, was heavily criticised by a number of local officials. Since no evidence of wrongdoing has yet been presented to the incumbent administration, the ministry has a limited legal basis to depose the current board. The leverage is solely financial since the government is the biggest contributor to federation's budget.

The ministry took no action in the weeks following the conference, and although Banka declared that the Olympic preparations of the riders will still be funded through Polish Olympic Committee, the authorities seemed to be waiting for the delegates' decision.

PZKol's financial situation, meanwhile, is dire. The federation is on the verge of bankruptcy – with no support from the ministry, the suspension of funding from two sponsors – petrol refiner PKN Orlen and shoe manufacturer CCC – it can no longer run its daily operations. The bank accounts have been frozen since the debt enforcement proceedings are ongoing – PZKol owes 9.5 million zlotys to construction company Mostostal for the works on the Pruszków velodrome in 2008-2009.

Cutting off the stream of funds has directly impacted the track national team. As reported Thursday by Przeglad Sportowy, the sprinters' team was left without a performance director and uncertain of funding. Delayed payments and lack of supervision have virtually stopped preparations towards the next World Cups and World Championships, adding to an already tense atmosphere within the programme.

While the federation's audit commission report was not part of the meeting's agenda, the chairman of the commission read out the report into finances nevertheless, presenting a damning picture of the financial management.

The commission's report stressed a lack of documentation, especially with regard to sponsorship contracts, and questioned the amounts spent by the board and the money transfers its members have made.

The commission also placed federation's outstanding balance for 2017 only at almost 1.4 million zlotys (€334,000).

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