11th August 2020

Australian football executives sue FIFA whistleblower

• Two top men of Football Queensland have sued author Bonita Mersiades for reporting on a dubious payment made by the federation to its President. Other reporters on the case receive threats and hacking attempts. This article was originally published by PlayTheGame on 9 August 2020. Click here for the original.

Australian writer, author and whistleblower, Bonita Mersiades, has been sued for AUD 800,000 [€486,000, USD 572,000], by the president and the CEO of the regional Football Queensland (FQ) who allege that she has caused damage to their personal and professional reputations after she published an article questioning the role of the FQ President in recruiting the new CEO for FQ. The article was published on FootballToday.news in January 2020, and in it Mersiades outlines how clubs and players in Queensland have to pay higher participation and registration fees in the 2020 season, and that the hike in price can be ascribed to the recruitment of a new CEO for Football Queensland. According to the article, the process has been costly for two reasons:

• The president of FQ, Benjamin Richardson, also owns his own recruitment consulting company. In 2019, he was paid A$44,000 (€37,380) by the FQ for two months’ consulting work to find a new CEO.

• The new CEO, Richard Cavalucci, is paid a salary of A$320,000 (€271,900) – a figure that is believed to be A$150,000 higher than the salary of his predecessor. Until his appointment, Cavalucci was a board member of FQ.

After an unsuccessful attempt to get Mersiades to take the article down, Benjamin Richardson and Richard Cavalucci proceeded to file civil proceeding against Mersiades and her publishing company at the end of June this year.

FQ hired expensive crisis management consultancy

The lawsuit against Mersiades has attracted the attention of investigative reporters Jens Weinreich, Germany, and James Corbett, UK. In one article they detail the timeline of Richardson’s involvement in the recruitment process of Cavalucci, and also provide copies of the invoice in the amount of A$44,000 from Richardson to Football Queensland and the mail, where Richardson in his role as president of Football Queensland instructs the staff to pay an invoice from his own personal company – and to keep it confidential.

In another article, Weinreich and Corbett use whistleblower testimony from employees from Football Queensland to show how the FQ hired the expensive crisis management consultancy, Rowland, to help manage the situation after not only Mersiades but also the Brisbane Courier-Mail published the story that the FQ President had been paid A$44,000 for consultancy services to the FQ. The article contains a copy of an email from Richardson to a stakeholder connected with the Gold Coast Football Board where Richardson attempts to address the issues raised by Mersiades and the Brisbane Courier-Mail. In it, he writes that the articles were “littered with inaccuracies and misrepresentations in relation to the temporary role I accepted to support Football Queensland while we recruited a new CEO and also the recruitment of our new CEO Rob Cavalucci”.

Richardson adds that the FQ will contact the media outlets concerned to “provide them with the real facts regarding this matter”. Almost seven months after the publication of the article, Richardson has not provided a single detail for his claims of inaccuracies, but he and Cavalluci have filed the lawsuit against Mersiades, who is a freelance writer, but not against the Brisbane Mail-Courier that is owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Threats and hacking attempts against journalists

The attempts to silence attention to the situation in Football Queensland does not end with the lawsuit against Mersiades. Weinreich and Corbett have also been on the receiving end of various threats.

After asking Richardson to reply to a number of questions, his lawyer sent an email to Corbett. A copy of the email is included in Weinreich and Corbett’s first article about the case and it says that Richardson has reported their conduct to the police ‘in respect of the crimes of extortion, as well as using a carriage service to menace. It may well also be that your email also amounts to perverting the course of justice’.

The lawyer signs off admonishing Corbett that ‘you publish any article at your and Ms Mersiades’ peril’. The journalists have also experienced hacking attempts on their home computers, email accounts and websites. Investigators have informed the journalists that the attacks were linked to a single computer in Queensland.

The same article also documents how a volunteer who is organising a fundraising campaign on behalf of Mersiades has experienced that a fake email account was set up in his name.  The account sent out mails soliciting payments that also contained a Trojan virus that would allow hackers to take over the workings of a computer and operate them remotely.

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