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How an out of touch federation is trying to destroy Australian sporting hero and whistleblower, Bonita Mersiades

Whistleblowers assume a special place in sporting culture. ‚These,‘ said Jens Sejer Anderson of Denmark’s Play The Game Institute in a 2017 speech, ‚are the unsung heroes who have shown the rest of us the true picture of the challenges around us. Without them, we would not know the reality on the ground and we would be fumbling in the dark.‘

Photo: Play the Game/Thomas Søndergaard

In our careers in journalism, Bonita Mersiades has been foremost among these brave voices. Sacked a decade ago from Australia’s 2022 World Cup for being ‚too honest‘, she cast a light on one of the most rotten sporting contests in history and her brave stance directly contributed to the US Department of Justice taking long-awaited action against FIFA. Her reputation as a whistleblower, author and activist globally is peerless. Her reputation amongst leading investigative journalists, criminal investigators, law enforcement agencies and academics working on sport corruption all over the world cannot be better.

Nevertheless, Bonita’s contribution to football has always transcended this narrow description as a whistleblower. First she was an activist in an early-century Australian game still struggling to broaden itself away from the national and ethnic rivalries of the immigrants who built the game to the ‚lucky country‘. Next she was a brilliant and formidable executive at FFA as the country staked its place in Asian football. Since the disastrous World Cup bid she has been the author of a formidable expose on FIFA’s rottenness, publisher of a small press, and editor of an excellent news website.

Her book ‚Whatever It Takes – the Inside Story of the FIFA Way‘ is brilliant, far beyond the Australian World Cup bid, peppered with numerous exclusive details – an absolute must-read. And, she donated all proceeds of the book to the Pararoos in their fundraising campaign to participate in international competition.

This is Bonita Mersiades.

It was the latter role as an author that has brought her recent problems. In January she published an article on FootballToday.news on the new executive management of Football Queensland (FQ), the regional FA that runs the game in Australia’s north east under the umbrella of Football Federation Australia (FFA). In it she presented the following facts:

  • After relieving FQ’s CEO, Richard Griffiths of his duties, its chairman, Ben Richardson, received $44,000 for executive and HR consulting activities for choosing Griffiths‘ successor.
  • After a self-described ‚rigorous and competitive recruitment process‘ Richardson settled on another FQ board member, Robert Cavallucci.
  • Cavallucci’s $320,000 pay packet was thought to be an 89% hike on what Griffiths was receiving.

The article was fact-based, using information that is now in the public domain via Football Queensland’s own audited accounts. In keeping with best journalistic practice she gave FQ the right of reply to the key aspect of the article – namely Richardson’s payment to himself – which it did not take advantage of.

It might have been tempting to point at the sulphurousness emitting from these rampant conflict of interests and the apparent incestuousness at the heart of FQ, but she let readers draw their own conclusions.

Down the legal rabbit hole

Nevertheless, Richardson and Cavallucci took such umbrage at publication that they instructed their lawyer to ensure Mersiades took the article down, despite not providing anything that contradicted her story. In the absence of a response from Mersiades‘ lawyer asking them to explain their issues with the article, understandably she refused to do so.

So enraged were they by this that Richardson and Cavallucci each instructed lawyers at the end of June – more than five months later, and after Australia was awarded FIFA’s Women’s World Cup 2023 – to file civil proceedings against Mersiades and her publishing company to the tune of $400,000 each for causing ‚enormous damage‘ to the plaintiff’s ‚personal and professional reputations‘ as well as ’substantial hurt, distress and embarrassment‘.

Richardson’s lawyer claimed that the article had made him look ‚corrupt‘, ‚disreputable‘ act ‚in dereliction of his duties‘ and ‚dishonest‘.

$800,000 overall is the claim ‚plus interest‘.

We understand that Football Queensland has a $10,000 excess on its insurance policy and this is likely to be funding the case. We have asked Richardson and his lawyers for clarification on this but they have not responded. FQ is not mentioned in the Statement of Claim or as a beneficiary for damages. In other words, at seemingly no financial risk to themselves Richardson and Cavallucci are embarking on costly litigation from which they might each benefit to the tune of $400,000.

The fact that the story was true didn’t seem to matter.

According to Queensland’s Orwellian defamation laws ‚there is no one test for determining whether something is defamatory.‘

The Queensland Law Handbook states that courts will often ask whether the defamation:

‚Leads to a lowering of the relevant person’s reputation‘ or ‚others to think less of them‘ or ‚cause others to ridicule, hate or despise them.‘

What it doesn’t seem to do is ask whether it is a plaintiff’s unethical behaviour that caused them to do so in the first place!

Once, Twice, oh dear Tiplady!

What Richardson’s Statement of Claim also seems to do is perjure him. Section 6d of the claim appears to show Richardson denying undertaking consulting work for Football Queensland:

‚The plaintiff is dishonest in that he rendered an invoice to Football Queensland for consulting work which he did not in fact undertake.‘

That he ‚did not undertake‘ consulting work for Football Queensland is repeated in section 6E.

Did the plaintiff really mean to say this?

Unfortunately for Richardson, invoice #00202 from Ben Richardson Consulting, Company Number 56 634 417 575 dated 14/11/2019 for $40,000 + $4,000 GST for HR/Recruitment Consulting services provided September and October 2019 shows this not to be true:

The money was paid.

These figures have since been confirmed in Football Queensland’s annual financial results.

When we emailed Richardson to point this out and suggested that it may be better for all concerned for him to quietly withdraw his action, he referred us to his lawyer, Ashley Tiplady (Mills Oakley). 

Tiplady’s best known client is Senator Pauline Hanson, who is no stranger to spurious defamation suits herself and three years ago was forced to pay costs after withdrawing one such case against broadcaster, ABC.

Ignoring all our questions, Tiplady accused us of making ‚threats‘, reported us to Queensland police for ‚extortion‘ (!), while threatening that publication of any article was at not only ‚our peril‘, but Mersiades’s too – apparently not realising that he was, in fact, threatening us and Mersiades.

We have contacted Richardson and Tiplady on multiple occasions about this specific point and the wording of the Statement of Claim. Neither have chosen to offer any explanation or correction.

Unanswered questions

Still waiting for Queensland Police to kick down our doors, we followed up with some more questions for Richardson:

  1. Given articles 6D & 6E of the Statement of Claim filed in the District Court of Queensland in which you deny undertaking the paid consulting work detailed in the article by Bonita Mersiades how do you account for invoice #00202 from Ben Richardson Consulting, Company Number 56 634 417 575 dated 14/11/2019 for $40,000 + $4,000 GST for HR/ Recruitment Consulting services provided September and October 2019?
  2. Are Football Queensland paying Miles Oakley’s legal bills in pursuit of this case? If so, who sanctioned this? Who paid for the hilarious legal letter sent by Ashley Tiplady to James Corbett on 23 July?
  3. Section 1.1 (d) of the Football Queensland constitution says that one of its objects is ‚to prevent racial, religious, gender or political discrimination or distinction among Football players in the State’. How do you square these values with retaining the same attorney as Pauline Hanson?
  4. Why would you, as president of FQ, hire your own consulting company (Ben Richardson Consulting Pty Ltd) for HR/recruitment consulting services – September/October 2019?
  5. Is this in accordance with the good governance, ethics and transparency rules of QF, FFA, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA?
  6. Would you please provide minutes of the respective board meetings and decisions providing your own company with a consulting contract worth $44,000?
  7. Did you authorise, in your position as FQ president, the payment of $44,000, to your own company?
  8. Can you provide any other documents that prove your consultant work for yourself (as FQ president)? 
  9. Have you done any work for the $44,000 you have charged your own federation as the owner of a private company?
  10. Is this the Australian way to run a not-for-profit organisation?
  11. The Football Queensland CEO’s job was advertised with a pay range of $170k-200k. We understand Robert Cavalluci is on a pay packet of $320,000. How is this possible?
  12. Given that Cavalluci was not only known to you, but a member of the FQ board, and that you received $44,000 for Executive and HR services, does this represent fair or good value for your services?
  13. We now have a copy of FQ’s financial results. They reference the consultancy fees (that we also have copies of invoices of) that you deny receiving in sections 6D & 6E of the statement of claim. ‚The plaintiff is dishonest in that he rendered an invoice to Football Queensland for consulting work which he did not in fact undertake.‘ Why did you claim not to undertake this work?
  14. We understand that an insurance policy held by FQ pays legal fees after the first $10,000 of costs: Who paid those first $10,000 of legal fees? Have your insurers agreed to pay and underwrite all legal costs, including the defendant’s when she inevitably wins this case? If it is FQ that have paid the first $10,000 of legal costs, why are they not named as a party in the statement of claim? How will they benefit from the combined $800,000 that you and Cavalluci are seeking from the defendant.
  15. One of the lines in the first story that we will publish is as below. In keeping with best journalistic practice I would like to offer you a right of reply on the following: It seems that at no financial risk to themselves, Richardson and Cavallucci are using Football Queensland’s resources to sue an individual and personally claim a huge dividend each for themselves. 

As of Friday 31 July in Queensland neither Richardson nor Tiplady have deigned to answer our questions. We also asked Cavalluci via LinkedIn to pass on contact details of FQ’s communications director. He responded by blocking James Corbett.

Also, we have sent numerous questions to Football Federation Australia (FFA), to the president and the CEO. No reply.

Richardson’s behaviour seems to be a breach of FFA’s Code of Conduct, for example § 2 ‚bringing the Game into disrepute‘ … ‚abuse of position to obtain personal benefit‚ … and several other rules.

By the way, Transparency International defines corruption as the misuse of entrusted power for private gain.

Did Richardson act corrupt?

At least, there are many unanswered questions.

Why we fight

An unpleasant, uneven and spuriously launched legal action 12,000 miles away may seem irrelevant to European readers, but the issues at stake far transcend Australia.

Firstly, there is the way sport treats whistleblowers. These people, says Jens Sejer Anderson, ‚have all experienced attacks in various forms on their personal reputation, livelihood and even life threats.‘ Mersiades‘ current predicament comes from her publishing, but its roots surely lie in her status as someone shunned by the Australian football establishment since she exposed the true nature of its doomed World Cup bid.

Are Richardson and Cavalluci angling for some sort of kudos from their colleagues at other state federations and FFA by achieving what others have failed in the past to do, namely silencing Bonita?

The answer to this question perhaps lies in the fact that they haven’t tried to sue other, more widely circulated publications to have issued similar reports, including the News Limited tabloid newspaper in Queensland.

Ironically, Bonita Mersiades has recently published an analysis on whistleblowers in the magazine SPORT & POLITICS.

‚As a woman who grew up in the generation and in a country where education, a career and family were all part of a package of a complete life, my career and my working life were taken away when I was still in my 40s. For all the wrong reasons; because I blew the whistle. For most, the outcome of being a whistleblower isn’t positive and doesn’t go away.‘

Whistleblowers need to be protected through their lives and in their subsequent careers. Let us be clear, in our opinion this is an attempt to subvert free speech and intimidate not just Bonita, but other whistleblowers – current and future ones. This will not be tolerated.

Secondly, there is misuse of libel and defamation laws as a bully pulpit. As we’ve illustrated, the case is entirely spurious. It seems that at no financial risk to themselves, Richardson and Cavallucci are using Football Queensland’s resources to sue an individual and personally claim a huge dividend each for themselves.

It is not about defending their reputations, it is about trying to destroy someone they deem an adversary.

They literally have nothing to lose. Mersiades, on the other hand, has to self-fund an expensive defence and risks her physical and mental health, her right to run a business, her personal finances, her home. And for what? Pointing out inconvenient truths.

These are the risks faced by journalists and activists the world over, particularly in countries where media law is no longer fit for purpose – as seems to be the case in Australia.

When the establishment attacks one of us, it attacks us all.

This is why we fight.

You can donate to the fund to support Bonita Mersiades’s defence here:

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