Words: Shane Stokes / Images: Cor Vos
The end of a long-running investigation into the theft of almost 20 million euros from Giro d’Italia parent company RCS Sport saw one person found guilty and several cleared of fraud. The latter included former Giro race director Michele Acquarone. The Italian welcomes the decision but fears that guilty people may yet remain unpunished.
Years ago I got chatting to a Spanish person who was studying English in Dublin. In the course of the conversation we talked about a range of things, from the teacher he fancied and was trying to impress to the peculiarities and intricacies of the English language.
He told me that he was making progress in his learning but was mystified by one phrase.
“When someone is blamed for something, why do they call it ‘an escaped goat?’”
Michele Acquarone isn’t Spanish, didn’t study English in Dublin and wasn’t the person in question. But he, too, is left confused about the term ‘scapegoat’. In his case it’s not about the word itself but rather how he became one.
Back in 2011 Acquarone’s star was in the ascendant. As the new director of the Giro d’Italia he took the race in a new and modern direction, elevating its status using new technologies and trying to challenge the dominance of the Tour de France.
Two short years later everything had changed. He and others were dramatically fired from the race’s parent company RCS Sport amid the reported misappropriation of 17 million euros. Acquarone protested his innocence, demanded answers but got nothing.
He launched an unfair dismissal case against RCS Sport but this was dismissed by a judge in November 2014. He pledged to fight on and in September of this year he was finally cleared of fraud at the end of long-running investigations and court hearings.
Former company accountant Laura Bertinotti was found guilty of the misappropriation of the funds in question. She was handed a sentence of eight years and eight months. All others were acquitted.
Despite the verdict, despite someone else having been found guilty, Acquarone still has a lingering sense of unease about the case. He believes Bertinotti was indeed at fault but questions whether she was the only transgressor.
“After the conclusion of the trial I was speaking about that with my family. What I said is that on day one we knew one thing: that Laura was taking out money. She did it with fake documents and forged signatures,” he tells Conquista.
“I don’t believe that she could do everything by herself. When I first found out something peculiar was taking place, when I went to the bank to understand what was going on, the bank director said that they had spoken with the RCS treasury two years before just to say that something strange was happening. They told them that Laura was taking a lot of money in cash out of the bank. The bank said ‘Please, do something,’ yet the treasury did nothing.
“It is six years now that everybody knows that Laura is guilty because she took the money out. But the problem is – how can a simple employee steal 17 million by herself? And that is the point – when RCS fired me and everybody knew that I was the wrong person, I was the scapegoat . . . it was clear. In my mind, I said that probably during the police investigation, the trial, we will know what happened to the money and how it was possible that she took the money out of the bank like that. But we didn’t.”
If Acquarone’s suspicions are correct, it means that Bertinotti is left taking the full blame for what happened. It is remarkable that the bank could have notified RCS of irregularities two years in advance of any action being taken by the company. It is, as he says, equally remarkable that one employee could have drained out so much money over such a long time.
“I am pretty confident that there is something more, something that we will never know in this life,” he says. “It is six years that RCS has had this omertà. Probably they have something to hide. Blaming me was easier, so nobody was asking anything more.”
‘MY LIFE HAS A KIND OF GRACE AROUND IT NOW’
When it finally came, September’s verdict was a massive weight off Acquarone’s shoulders. It marked the end of six long years of hardship and heartbreak, a time when a respected individual had his name blackened and was cast aside.
He had insisted for many years that he was innocent, giving numerous interviews expressing his point of view and protesting at how he had been treated by the company. He had no doubt that he had done nothing wrong yet, paradoxically, found the official acknowledgement of that a little hard to believe.
It wasn’t that he doubted himself but rather that he had lost faith in the system. Such was the effect of so much time out in the cold.
“It was unexpected. Unexpected not because somebody could think that I was guilty but just because it was a never-ending story,” he explains. “In my mind somewhere there was a voice saying that probably I would be dead before the end of the trial. So when I got the news, I said, ‘Wow, I am still alive.’ And I can enjoy that.
“[The outcome of the trial] was great, because I felt definitely lighter. It is like my life has a kind of grace all around it now, colours shining. There is a kind of feeling about my life that the sun is shining. Everything can happen, good things can happen. I am more positive than ever.”
The Italian’s mood was in stark contrast to how he felt four years earlier. He was in despair at that time, unable to find regular work. He had been in close contact with the Zwift company, giving advice as it prepared to launch what would be a very successful product, but ultimately wasn’t offered a role. He was similarly unsuccessful when trying to land other positions.
Each time he impressed and each time he was told that companies couldn’t take a risk while he was still linked to the RCS scandal. What was most frustrating to him, he says, was that he had originally tried to point out to RCS that money had been going missing. The leaking of funds had been brought to his attention and he went to senior management about it. But, instead of being rewarded for that, he was shafted.
“This is like a situation in cycling. Everybody knows about the doping problem,” he told this writer four years ago. “Sometimes I feel I’m seen like one of the doped athletes who said they didn’t do anything wrong and then you have all the people who say you are a cheater.
“But what I am saying is I am not like that. I was not one of these guys. I am like the guy who found out that in the team somebody was cheating, I reported it, yet I was fired. And now everybody thinks I was a doper. And that is crazy.”
Once the verdict came in and it was shown that Bertinotti was the guilty person rather than Acquarone he had the right to be livid. And yet his reaction was to move on.
“In my mind, I don’t want to think about RCS anymore,” he said then. “For me, it is done, it is finished. I don’t care. But, of course, at the beginning of it all I was angry, thinking of revenge. I had those thoughts, they were very strong. But now, after six years, I don’t even remember that I had a problem with RCS. I am just happy that fans know that I didn’t do anything wrong.
“I am not looking for money, I am not looking for revenge. I am just fine that I have my dignity back.”
WELCOMED BACK TO THE FOLD
Talk to Acquarone for any length of time and his passion for cycling is obvious. His path into the sport was different from many others who became senior administrators. Former Tour de France organiser Jean-Marie Leblanc, for example, was originally a professional rider who landed several wins and placed second in the 1970 Four Days of Dunkirk. Leblanc became a journalist and then went on to work as Tour de France race director from 1989 to 2005.
In contrast, Acquarone wasn’t part of the sport from an early age but instead evolved into the position of Giro organiser. He was a fast learner, though, and also became a big fan of cycling. His trajectory was such that he, and the Giro, should both have prospered, but the events of 2013 ruined that momentum.
One of the hardest things about his time in the wilderness was not being able to work in the sport. Becoming a pariah hurt, but despite the pain he was still drawn to cycling during that time.
“I went to races in the past year,” he reveals to Conquista. “I did it, but very hidden in the crowd. Now I can do it in a lighter way. And if I have to shake hands, I can do it because the people now know that I never betrayed fans. They know that I was working with passion and not thinking about stealing money.”
The feeling of others towards him is important. Being under a cloud hurt him, and he was very grateful to those who reached out to him during his time in the shadows. Indeed, after he was cleared in September, he sent messages to some of the people he felt had been supportive expressing his thanks.
Acquarone’s positive mood was boosted by the reaction of others. “I got a lot of messages,” he says, speaking about the time after his acquittal. “A lot of warmth from fans. I was really surprised, because I didn’t expect that after six years, so many people were still remembering me. I was just a shooting star in cycling. I didn’t spend so much time [in the sport], but it was incredible how many fans, how many people that I don’t know, were writing to me, reaching out to me on social networks to say ‘I am happy, I know that you didn’t do anything wrong, please come back.’ That was very good.”
And it wasn’t just the fans. “I also got a lot of good messages from the people who were working in cycling, such as pro riders. But nobody from RCS wrote me a message saying ‘I am sorry, I apologise.’ Actually, I can’t say nobody from RCS, because one did. It is a very important person in the company. He is not a friend of mine, just somebody who I respect a lot in RCS Sport. He was one of the first who called me and that was good.
“But nobody who was there when I was working in RCS said ‘I apologise, we took out the wrong person.’ They never spoke and they are not speaking now.”
Still, even if that wrong hasn’t been righted, he is greatly boosted by the messages of support. That has made it clear to him that there could yet be an interest in him returning to the sport.
However he’s uncertain if his future lies in this direction. He’s a director at the D-Share company and is grateful for the opportunity it gave him when times were tough.
“Now I have a very good job here in Italy. The company who hired me two years ago believed in me when nobody did. So I have a great respect for them. I want to give my knowledge, everything I can to make this company grow. I am fine with that.”
Still, there is a part of him that misses what he did before. “Of course, my love is in sport. My heart is in cycling, so never say never. But nothing happened in six years . . . I don’t believe that something will happen now. Or if it does, it would probably be in another country.
“But there are so many good managers now, so many good people already. I don’t think that something will happen in Aigle [at the UCI], or whatever. But of course if something does happen, if there is an opportunity, I will consider it carefully, because my heart is there.”
Either way, he is grateful for the way things have turned out.
“I think it is just great that I can go to the races and that I know that people realise that I am a good man.”
Background: From Giro Success to Scapegoat
Eight years ago Acquarone was on a high. He had been part of Italy’s famous RCS Sport group for several years and, somewhat unexpectedly, was handed the reins of the Giro d’Italia. They named Acquarone as the successor to Angelo Zomegnan and saw the younger Italian as the perfect person to modernise the race, to make the most of modern platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and to help the Giro make up ground on the dominant Tour de France.
Acquarone synced well with riders and teams and was seen as progressive and innovative. Team managers such as Jonathan Vaughters praised him, recognising his new approach and his potential to help the race and the sport have a better future.
His tenure initially went well and it seemed he would be in the sport for a long time. However in October 2013 he was sensationally 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 euros had been detected and that an audit would be carried out. It eventually emerged that between 15 and 17 million euros were taken from various accounts between 2006 and 2013.
It made for huge news in Italy and others also found themselves heading out of the door. Media relations director Matteo Pastore was suspended. Chairman Flavio Biondi was replaced by Raimondo Zanaboni and employee Laura Bertinotti quit her role.
The scandal grew when Acquarone was finally fired in December 2013. Surprisingly, 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.
Acquarone protested his innocence but his ability to make his living was severely affected. His reputation, too, took a hit because of the actions of RCS Sport and its complete refusal to clarify why he had been fired.
Acquarone tried to fight back. He brought an unfair dismissal case against RCS Sport but this was dismissed by a judge in November 2014. Acquarone said that the judge didn’t open the process nor interview any witnesses and so he lodged a complaint against this decision.
However he would have to wait another five years for his name to be cleared. Finally, in September, he and others were acquitted: Bertinotti was found guilty, and handed a long jail sentence.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 24.