Italian Paolo Barelli threw his hat in the ring for the FINA presidency “a couple of hours” before the deadline for nominations ran out on April 22 because “it was clear that we in Europe were being bullied by FINA leaders and that we were already at war … my campaign for changes at the top of FINA would not be taken seriously”, SwimVortex has learned.
The FINA Hon Secretary and former Italian senator is fighting his fellow FINA executives in a Court of Arbitration case over “outrageous conflicts of interest” and a refusal to adhere to FINA rules after his request to have complaints against fellow members of the international federation’s ‘leadership’ group referred to the organisation’s Ethics Panel was refused.
Both the Panel itself and the Carrard team conducting a governance review that borders on an in-house process in that the legal outfit has long worked with and represented FINA, warned the swimming federation’s executive in 2015 and 2016 that the rules of aquatic body are in conflict when it comes to who and in what circumstances complaints can be heard by the Ethics Panel.
Barelli is challenging that and other issues at the CAS in a case that raises allegations of conflicts of interference, lack of transparency, turning a blind eye to rules and interference in European federation elections by FINA’s ‘first vice-president’ Husain Al-Musallam, the USA-backed Kuwaiti director general of the Olympic Council of Asia named as ‘co-conspirator No3’ in a U.S. Justice Department indictment related to FIFA corruption allegations involving bribes of almost $1 million.
Now, SwimVortex has obtained documents in which Barelli explains to supporters that he felt he had “no choice” but to launch a challenge for the FINA presidency in a vote at General Congress in Budapest on July 22, the eve of eight days of racing in the pool at the World Championships. The explanation includes:
“It was clear that we were already at war because they did not want to let Europe have its say, they refused to face up to serious problems in FINA and would not allow those to be heard even within the organisation through the Ethics Panel.”
Barelli spoke to trusted advisers on the last day before the deadline for FINA nominations for the cycle 2017 to 2021, to be voted on at Congress in July, and says he “searched inside myself” before concluding that “I had to stand for the president role because otherwise my complaints and my campaign for changes at the top of FINA would not be taken seriously”.
A senior source and supporter of Barelli’s has told SwimVortex that events since the Italian lodged his challenge to the incumbent at the helm of FINA, 81-year-old US-backed Julio Maglione, of Uruguay, have served to reinforce the view that review and reform of the international federation is long overdue.
Al-Musallam has denied any wrongdoing. In-house and ethic panel hearings within Olympic organisations the Kuwaiti official works for will not suffice to clear him if the case against him is tested in a U.S. courtroom.
The trouble with internal investigations extends one of the questionable issues at the heart of Barelli’s complaints against Al-Musallam: while the Italian was refused a referral of complaints to the Ethics Panel, the Kuwaiti pressed for the allegations made against him to be heard anyway – and when that hearing was held, one of the panel members was Al-Musallam’s fellow Kuwaiti Abdulla Al Hayyan.
While there is no suggestion of deliberate impropriety, senior FINA sources note that it is “common practice” for hearings to avoid having members of the adjudicating panel hail from the same nation as the person who is the subject of a complaint.
Said one FINA source: “We would not expect to find the official from country X sitting in on the doping hearing of a swimmer from country X. The same should apply to all processes involving complaint and conflict, for obvious reasons. It is in everyone’s interest, including those who are the subject of complaint, that the process is beyond criticism.”
Supporters of Barelli also notes that Barelli was not given the right of response to evidence submitted by Al-Musallam in his defence.
Whatever arguments may exist for internal investigations, any legal judgment in a court of law in the United States will have a significant impact on investigations inside the sports “family”, as the IOC, FINA and others like to call it.
That point is not lost on the growing number of senior voices in swimming asking, as one close to the helm of the federation put it to SwimVortex: “Why is Al-Musallam still able to operate as an official in FINA? On the one hand Kuwait is a nation serving a suspension: that alone should mean he should step aside.
“Then we have the U.S. indictment, a denial of wrongdoing but no denial that the person cited in the Justice Department papers is indeed a high-ranking FINA official. If Husain Al-Musallam is indeed the man cited in the court papers, then the decent thing for him to do would be to step down pending inquiries – and if he does not wish to do that, FINA’s leadership should impose a temporary suspension, just as they would and do for swimmers who are identified as the subject of an adverse finding for doping. The man has a right to defend himself but votes at FINA Congress and the federation’s progress should not be affected by any of this.”
Events surrounding the allegations against Al Musallam and his OCA boss and IOC “kingmaker” Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, who has stepped down from all his FIFA roles pending investigations, have served to reinforce the growing view among “Europeans and a lot of others around the world that things cannot simply go on as they have been doing: we need a radical review and shake-up”.
These issues are just too serious to ignore”, a Lausanne source tells SwimVortex, adding: “FINA is in a difficult place: Husain Al-Musallam is the third member of the Bureau to face allegations of corruption in the past year, after Coaracy Nunes in Brazil and Ben Ekumbo in Kenya.”
A source in the United States says that the issue is indeed being taken “very seriously” and that there is even talk of Maglione thinking twice about whether to withdraw from the race to be president for a third time. The source said:
“At his time in life, perhaps he can do without it and he is surely aware of the growing support for [Al Musallam] to step down pending inquiries. It would be difficult for some to vote one way or the other at Congress this July if the legal case is not decided.”
Meanwhile, in a three-page letter to the heads of European Federations obtained by SwimVortex, Barelli, president of the European Swimming League (LEN) and the Italian Swimming Federation (FIN), addressed delegates, including those who have submitted evidence to show they were contacted by Kuwaitis during the 2016 election campaign for the LEN presidency with a view to gaining support for an anti-Barelli campaign in favour of Dutch challenger Erik Van Heijningen. The challenger was roundly defeated but Barelli took his grievances to the top table of FINA only to be “effectively told to shut up”, in the words of one source.
Barelli remains tight-lipped about all matters when approached by the media but in his letter to delegates he states:
“As you well know all our long-standing complaints with regard to FINA and its unethical behaviour have been completely ignored. It is precisely for this that I have decided to present my candidacy to the position of President at the upcoming FINA Congress in Budapest.
“I am aware that is not an easy task. Nonetheless, I feel it is the only way to make the world aware of the current untenable situation we are facing.
“We cannot continue to silently accept things that are clearly wrong or be bullied any further.”
SwimVortex understands from Lausanne sources that Barelli’s challenge to FINA at the CAS is now going ahead after the international federation caused delays that could have resulted in the case being lost by default.
Barelli’s campaign messages for the FINA presidency are yet to be revealed but SwimVortex understands that they will include:
- clearer rules on conflicts of interest
- a review of the rule book to remove conflicts identified by the Ethics Panel and Carrard
- age and term limits in line with the IOC’s newest standards
- a review of governance structures that grants weight to the success of nations in competition
Barelli tells European delegates in his letter: “I am convinced that my feelings are reflected also in your thoughts and that we must be united to make the world know that FINA must change
“Change for the sake of change is useless. Change to make a real difference is what I want to achieve with you.”