Searle cleared in Titans salary cap breach
Michael Searle's position as the majority stakeholder of the Gold Coast Titans is not under any threat despite the club being fined more than $200,000 on Thursday for a salary cap breach relating to the departure of former captain Scott Prince at the end of 2012.
In the heaviest of five salary cap breach penalties handed down by the NRL on Thursday, the Titans were fined $300,000 and four competition points, with $75,000 and the competition points suspended for two years providing the club adheres to the salary cap in that time.
After a torturous season the final Titans press conference in the troubled Centre of Excellence seemed somewhat apt as they endeavour to leave the mistakes of the past and forge a new future under new governance.
The nature of the breach entailed Prince being paid substantially more by the Titans than that which was represented on the contract lodged with the NRL and came after he severed ties with the club to join the Broncos for the 2013 season.
Prince's role as an NRL One Community Ambassador expires at the end of this month and in its release the NRL stated that his position would not be renewed.
"The matter relates to a scheme that the previous management at the Titans orchestrated at the end of 2012 when Scott Prince left the club," NRL General Manager of Integrity, Nick Weeks explained. "Graham Annesley, when he took over as CEO, identified the payment irregularity and informed us immediately. We've been working with Graham and the new management at the club to get to the bottom of what occurred."
Less than a week after the club launched an internal review of its operations in August, Searle stood down from his positions on the board and as executive director of football at the Titans but maintained his 40 per cent stake in the club.
In his video address Weeks stated that those found to be involved in deliberate salary cap breaches – at any club – would unlikely be allowed to have a place in the NRL but Titans CEO Graham Annesley emphasised the fact that the findings in no way implicated any involvement by Searle.
"With the limited information I have received from the NRL since they advised me [on Wednesday] night of the penalty, is that they could find no evidence that Michael Searle had any knowledge of this particular incident," Annesley said.
"I have absolutely no doubt that under our existing board structure, under our current management structure, things like this will simply not happen again in the future. I think that's a great message for our fans, our members, our supporters, our corporate partners, that this club is now clearly being run on the basis of nothing but 100 per cent transparency and integrity."
Having quit state politics to return to rugby league and take up the position as Titans CEO in mid September 2013, less than two months into the job Annesley felt compelled to make a phone call to then NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert that would silently haunt him for close to 12 months.
"I always knew this day was coming. I always knew that it would involve a significant penalty but to me, we had no option but to make the NRL aware of it, to work with them, get it resolved, put it behind us and move forward," Annesley said.
"From my time at the NRL I knew from the moment that I found out about it the type of penalty that this sort of breach brings with it. I wasn't shocked by the penalty, I think the NRL has been fair in their assessment of the process and we will accept the penalty. We've put in place processes over the past 12 months since I've been here that will ensure this type of thing never happens again in the future.
"The future of this club is not in any way threatened by the nature of this penalty. I've known this penalty has been coming since two months after I got here, I'm glad that it's now out of the way, we can put it behind us and move forward."
As they prepare to take up temporary accommodation at the Gold Coast City Council offices from Monday, the $225,000 fine is the latest body blow to a club battling to stand on its own two feet.
Although Annesley assured the assembled media that similar breaches would never again happen in his time at the club, he couldn't guarantee that there aren't more skeletons hiding in the back of the Gold Coast Titans closet.
"I can't give you that guarantee at all. Since I've been here there have been a number of things that have been uncovered and I will continue, whenever we come across anything I think even has the slightest sniff of suspicion, we will forward that straight to the NRL and work with them to try to get to the bottom of it," he said.
"Like a lot of NRL clubs we're not in a position to be spending more than $200,000 on a penalty of this nature. That's why there is absolutely no point in trying to do anything outside of the rules because whenever there is an incident like this there is always more than one person that knows about it and eventually these sorts of things get uncovered. We've seen it time and time again with other cases at other clubs that there is simply no value in doing it and it won't happen under my administration.
"I have no concerns whatsoever about the suspended portion of the penalties because we will simply not be in a position to have those imposed because we won't be breaching anything."