The Annual Meeting of USA Track & Field will begin in Florida on Thursday against a worrying report of a grand jury investigation of the organization and the continuation of a year-long power play between the membership, the USATF Board and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
The long-festering question of taking control away from the membership and handing it to the Board – at the request of the USOPC – is set to be voted on this Sunday in this part-in-person and part-online gathering and is expected to be contentious.
But all of American track & field was rocked by a RunnersWorld.com story on Tuesday by Eugene-based Sarah Lorge Butler, titled “Criminal Investigation Looks at the Financial Relationship Between USATF and Nike.”
The story explains that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia issued “a grand jury subpoena requested documents pertaining to USATF and its board of directors and three businesses: Nike; Matchbook Creative, a marketing firm in Indianapolis that counts USATF as one of its clients; and Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures LLC, a media and commercial rights advisory firm in New York.”
Documents were also requested about two “escrow agreements” from 2018 in the names of USATF chief executive Max Siegel and chief operating officer Renee Washington.
In response to a request for comment, USATF responded that it “is not able to confirm the existence of any investigation” and will cooperate with any government inquiry.
The request for records apparently goes back as far as 2012; the landmark 2017-2040 sponsorship extension with Nike worth up to $500 million was announced in April 2017 and was reported to have been brought to the federation by two former Nike executives, Chris Bevilacqua and Adam Helfant.
A grand jury inquiry is just that: an inquiry, led by prosecutors, out of which indictments can be issued to begin criminal proceedings. It is also possible that nothing may happen. But a grand jury is supposed to be a closed procedure, and neither the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Investigation would provide comment for the story.
Activist Becca Peter immediately questioned whether the USATF Board would take action in the way that it did in 2018, when it suspended elected President Vin Lananna because he spoke with federal investigators investigating possible corruption by then-IAAF President Lamine Diack (SEN: convicted of extortion regarding doping in France) in the award of the IAAF World Championships.
At that time, USATF Board Chair Steve Miller said “[T]o avoid any conflict or appearance of conflict of interest in relation to the investigation, the board voted to place Mr. Lananna on temporary administrative leave until the Department of Justice investigation pertaining to TrackTown and the 2021 World Championships is resolved.”
Lananna had to file a grievance to return to his position as President and won his case with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in December 2019, the same day as the USATF Annual Meeting began.
Wrote Peter on Tuesday on Twitter: “Soooo the board is going to place Max and Renee on leave, right? Isn’t that how this is supposed to work?”
Lananna’s role is central to the issue of member disenfranchisement question that will come up once again in 2021. At the 2020 Annual Meeting, he was demoted to Vice-Chair after the USATF Board bowed to USOPC demands for a change in its by-laws. A November notice to the membership explained:
“In February 2020, the USOPC sent a letter to USATF’s executive management in which they again outlined their concerns with our corporate governance. Citing the shift of the USOPC from NGB recognition to NGB certification, the letter noted that compliance with good corporate governance would be even more important for every NGB going forward.
“The USOPC mandates that good (or effective) governance means that the USATF Board 1) must be the final authority to adopt bylaws and regulations; 2) shall elect the Chair and the elected Chair should have appropriate appointment authority; 3) include more independent members and have additional athlete representation; and 4) ensure volunteers don’t make decisions, which could impact the budgetary or operational aspects of the organization.”
A response to the Nassar abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics, the USOPC is now being held responsible for the actions of the national federations and wants to be able to directly influence their operations without any input or review from federation members.
The 2020 measure failed, since it did not receive the 2/3rds majority needed for passage (but did get 57% of the vote). Disregarding the member vote, the USATF Board then overrode the members and adopted the new by-law changes by itself! It demoted Lananna to Vice Chair and installed 1992 Olympic Triple Jump champ Mike Conley as Chair, who continues to serve as the unelected-by-members head of the federation.
The “temporary amendments” voted in by the USATF Board last year are now on the agenda to be ratified or rejected by the membership this time. In a Q&A by Peter, posted on trackandfieldnews.com, current Law & Legislation Committee member – and former chair – Ed Koch explained that the actions concern the Bylaw to Article 21, Bylaw to Article 10, and Regulation 16-H:
“The Article 21 Amendment is the most important because it would disenfranchise the membership by doing three things.
“First, Temporary Amendments by the Board would continue indefinitely instead of merely to the next Annual Meeting. Second, even if eventually voted down by the delegates, the Board could override the delegates and make the Temporary Amendment permanent anyway. Third, for all other amendment proposals, the Board could block a proposal from even going to the delegates for a vote.
“In short there would no longer be any checks and balances. The Board could make any change for any reason, even if the membership opposes the change. For example, board members could vote to extend their own terms beyond the current term limits.
“The Article 10 Amendment provides that the Board picks its own Chair instead of the President automatically becoming the Board Chair. The President was the automatic Chair from 1980 to 2008, but in 2008 the USOPC began to take issue with this practice and our bylaws have since changed several times. As a result of the Temporary Amendment, Mike Conley is now the Board Chair instead of Vin Lannana.
“The Regulation 16-H Amendment changes the Law & Legislation Committee in two ways. First, up to now, the President has always appointed the six at-large members of the committee (including the chair) just as is done with most administrative committees. The amendment splits the appointments three & three between the Board Chair and President with the Board Chair appointing the L&L Chair. Second, the Temporary Amendment creates term limits for L&L members. In our view, the change in appointments stacks the committee.”
The USATF Law & Legislation Committee has prepared alternative proposals on the three temporary amendments passed by the Board last year; Koch indicated that the membership will vote on Sunday and that each “temporary amendment” requires a 2/3rds majority to pass. If they fail – and they failed last year – there are compromise amendments which could be heard.
USATF has been mostly free of the kind of abuse scandals which have rocked other national federations, such as in gymnastics and swimming. But the revelations in the RunnersWorld story and now the question of whether the USATF members will cede all power to its Board of Directors will make this Annual Meeting a pivot point for the organization heading into a year in which the World Championships will come to the U.S. for the first time. That event is supposed to change the trajectory of the sport in the U.S.; it’s not even top-of-mind this week.
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