Eels director quits in off-field turmoil

The Eels’ off-field dramas have taken another twist with director Mario Libertini resigning from the board of the Parramatta Leagues Club on Thursday night.

The exit of Libertini came on the eve of Friday’s PLC board meeting, which will discuss the club’s fresh internal investigation into tampering of memberships as well as this month’s farcical annual general meeting. Fairfax Media on Wednesday reported the inquiry had so far uncovered systematic backdating of up to 150 memberships in the lead-up to last year’s PLC elections. It was also revealed the Eels’ archives storeroom near the Leagues Club was broken into last week, with police called over suspected stolen records.

(L-R) Eels Chairman Roy Spagnolo, Ricky Stuart and Eels CEO Bob Bentley speak at a press conference to announce Stuart's new role as coach of the Parramatta Eels NRL team at Parramatta Stadium on July 27, 2012 in Sydney, Australia. Stuart has signed a three year deal with the Eels. Picture: Matt Blyth.

(L-R) Eels Chairman Roy Spagnolo, Ricky Stuart and Eels CEO Bob Bentley speak at a press conference to announce Stuart's new role as coach of the Parramatta Eels NRL team at Parramatta Stadium on July 27, 2012 in Sydney, Australia. Stuart has signed a three year deal with the Eels. Picture: Matt Blyth.

Parramatta chairman Steve Sharp has labelled the tampering of memberships, allegedly for vote-stacking purposes, as disturbing and vowed to press on with an investigation and support the involvement of ‘‘relevant law enforcement authorities’’. Among the memberships found to have been entered into the database and backdated by three years over a two-day period in April last year were many associates, friends and family of former chairman Roy Spagnolo, including six people with the same surname. There were also three members of the Libertini family.

PLC chief executive Bevan Paul told Fairfax Media this week the Eels’ probe had not determined who was behind the tampering, found to have taken place on club computers mainly in the three-hour period between 6am and 9am when the Leagues Club is not open. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of Libertini, and he said on Thursday night he was departing from both the PLC and Parramatta District Rugby League boards due to increasing work commitments.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Steve Sharp and my fellow directors for the opportunity to provide a contribution to the club that I love," Libertini said in an Eels statement.

“I leave my position as a director without regret, knowing that, along with the current and former board, I have played a role in fulfilling the enormous potential this club has. I wish the board and management of the Parramatta Leagues Club Group success in the future, and I look forward to watching our team achieve the ultimate success of an NRL premiership.”

The Parramatta statement said Libertini had advised directors of an intention to resign at the end of last month.

Sharp said: “Mario’s passion for the club is obvious, and on behalf of the board and the club I would like to thank him for the time and effort that he has shown the club, its members and fans."

His departure appeared to scupper plans for a possible challenge of Sharp’s leadership that had gathered pace before Friday’s board meeting. It is believed Lawrence Shepherd, a former ally of Sharp’s on the ParraFirst ticket, was considering a move against the chairman, forming what could have been seen as an unholy alliance with two directors who have ties to Spagnolo – Robert Sassen and Libertini. With Sharp retaining the support of deputy chairman Tom Issa and another director, Peter Serrao, it left the other member of the board, Geoff Gerard, potentially holding the casting vote at Friday’s meeting.

The exit of Libertini, though, leaves only six directors on the board and should guarantee Sharp retains the chairmanship. While the investigation into membership tampering will be on the agenda on Friday, so will the AGM of May 5. The chairman’s opponents blame Sharp squarely for how the night unravelled.

Several resolutions, including one to adopt former Macquarie Bank executive Bill Moss as an eighth and independent director, were rejected. In embarrassing scenes, a resolution to increase the directors’ honorarium to $20,000 also included a proposal to give the chairman a $60,000 annual fee, a detail that had not been foreshadowed and was admitted to be an ‘‘error’’ – but was still put to a vote.

Another resolution – to extend the term of future boards from two to three years – was abandoned before even going to members when the board accepted a claim by former chairman Denis Fitzgerald that its wording was unlawful under the Registered Clubs Act.

The meeting began with Sharp’s former teammate Terry Leabeater – a Spagnolo factional warrior – booted from the auditorium over abusive messages sent to Sharp, and ended with the sight of sworn enemies Spagnolo and Fitzgerald shaking hands.

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