The financial brouhaha involving Olympian EJ Obiena and his national federation, the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa), has taken a really ugly turn no one saw coming.
And a source from the athletic body privy to the investigation revealed that because of the involvement of taxpayer money, there’s only one way for this mess to have a conclusion: Obiena facing his federation’s probe.
“Whether he likes it or not, he will have to face the Patafa investigation because this involves government funds,” said the source, who refused to be identified because the probing team has yet to speak to Obiena.
The Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), alarmed over the controversy hounding a national athlete being eyed to get on the podium in the 2024 Olympics, also said on Saturday that it will look into the matter.
The issue erupted after documents provided to the Inquirer showed that the Patafa had ordered Obiena to return 85,000 euros (around P4.8 million) in salaries intended for coach Vitaly Petrov that, the association said, the pole vault ace “falsified” in “liquidations submitted” to the federation.
Obiena later held a press conference, with Petrov in tow, showing that he had already paid the legendary coach. Petrov also backed Obiena’s claim.
But more documents provided to the Inquirer by different sources showed that as of Sept. 15 this year, Petrov had not yet been paid his coaching dues, which were pegged at 2,000 euros a month. An affidavit written by pole vault legend Sergey Bubka, now a high-ranking World Athletics official, backed that claim.
“Vitaliy (sic) also said that last year (2020), he asked EJ why Patafa didn’t pay anything for his coaching and EJ said that some money was allocated for his training by the Olympic Commission of the Philippines and sent to Patafa. Patafa used this money for other purposes. In other words, this money was stolen by Patafa and EJ didn’t receive anything,” read part of Bubka’s affidavit, which was notarized last month.
The Inquirer tried to verify the legitimacy of the affidavit with Patafa chief Philip Juico but he has not responded at press time. However, the Patafa has said that both Petrov and Bubka had executed affidavits saying Petrov wasn’t paid for several months. Two sources, separate from the one who provided a copy of the affidavit to the Inquirer, also verified the document.Obiena could not be reached for comment although he did release a statement after it became apparent that he paid Petrov but was late in doing so.
“Patafa has accused me, in writing, of committing serious crimes of embezzlement and outright ‘theft’ of monies intended for my coach, Vitaliy (sic) Petrov,” the statement read. “After Vitaliy (sic) himself appeared in the press conference on November 20, refuting these allegations, now they suddenly change the written accusations. Instead of admitting they were wrong, they now change the subject: Now the issue is, apparently, I perhaps did not pay Petrov ‘on time.’”
“That’s a long way from embezzlement and theft that they accused me of,” Obiena added in his statement, explaining that he processes the paperwork himself when it comes to paying his team in Italy, where he is based, thus resulting in delayed payments.
“I just sometimes cannot manage the workload and the training and get everything done to Patafa’s satisfaction,” Obiena’s statement read.
According to a knowledgeable source, the probe is expected to center on these late payments, which Obiena admitted, and whether or not the athlete had indicated in his liquidation reports that he had paid Petrov despite being behind in releasing the salaries.
The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t connected to the issue, said the initial Patafa memo did not indicate that Obiena had stolen the funds meant for Petrov, but that the athlete had indicated Petrov had been paid in liquidation reports submitted to the federation.
The wording of the two memos provided to the Inquirer, the source said, was the kind of wording to be expected from associations holding misrepresented liquidation reports involving government funds—including the demand for the return of the questioned amount—and does not represent, tacit or otherwise, an accusation of theft.
And, the other Inquirer source said, Obiena must clear this issue up with the Patafa to avoid other legal liabilities. Even if the pole vaulter had paid his coach, he could still face charges of falsification of public documents since he allegedly made the Patafa believe that Petrov was being paid on time.
“He cannot just call a press conference, [and] not face the investigation,” the first source said.
The pole vault ace, meanwhile, on Tuesday questioned “why are there attacks against me, without any due process, without even asking me a question, of this serious crime?”
In the same virtual press conference on Sunday where Obiena appeared with Petrov, the pole vaulter also threatened to retire from “the sport that I love.” However, in his latest statement, he said that he would be amenable to make peace.
But that peace can only come with the clarity that a probe on the liquidation reports will provide.
“If he (Obiena) refuses to face the investigation, the Patafa will proceed with the case based on the evidence they have,” added the source. “Obiena not just stands to lose his place in the national team, but must face more serious charges from the government.”
One positive thing going though is that Obiena also wants the issue to be brought to a venue that will study all documentary evidence available.
“I will clear my name. I will raise all legal challenges and I want this to be put into a court of law where all evidence must be exposed,” Obiena said in his statement. “Patafa claims they have a signed written complaint from Vitaliy (sic) Petrov. Vitaliy (sic) claims the exact opposite.”
“Patafa has leaked every other document. Why have they not leaked the signed affidavit of Vitaliy (sic) Petrov? Perhaps because it doesn’t exist? Now that is a crime,” Obiena wrote.
Ranked fifth in the world, Obiena cast doubt on the Bubka affidavit, saying: “Patafa somehow construed this entire case and cajoled Bubka into making this statement.”
The worst case for Obiena is that, having been stricken off the national team pending the results of the investigation, he cannot compete for the Philippines.
“I am willing to ‘make peace’ on this case but I must have my good name cleared. I do not hold out much hope. It is clear I am not wanted by my federation in any shape or form.” Obiena said. “I am destroyed mentally and reputationally. And the attacks keep coming. Clearly, I am not wanted.”
And that feeling of being not wanted is what worries the POC.
“I am very disappointed. They could have handled the situation internally, absent of any misfires from both parties. A bountiful career is now in peril,’’ said POC president Rep. Abraham “Bambol’’ Tolentino.
“We in the POC will be steadfast and for the sake of Olympism and impartiality, will go into the details and investigate the matter,’’ said Tolentino. INQ
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