During a hearing before the Victorian Racing Tribunal (VRT) on 25 February 2021, Racing Victoria (RV) Stewards withdrew charges laid against licensed trainer Richard Laming, assistant trainer Marnu Potgieter and stable employee MD Zeyaur Rahman.
The charges related to the alleged or attempted stomach tubing of Jamaican Rain which was engaged to run in the Group 3 Jim Beam Stakes (1400m) at Flemington Racecourse on 5 November 2019.
Upon notification of the withdrawal of the charges, RV management immediately commenced a review of the matter and advised the independent Victorian Racing Integrity Board (VRIB) which has been kept apprised throughout.
The review confirmed that, following his first day of giving oral evidence before the VRT on 23 February 2021, Stipendiary Steward, Dion Villella, initiated contact with fellow Stipendiary Steward, Mark Stevens, on three occasions over three days.
As Mr Stevens was also scheduled to give evidence at the hearing, Mr Villella’s contact was in contravention of an order of the VRT which prevented witnesses from speaking to other witnesses or interested parties during an adjournment.
In the first instance, Mr Villella contacted Mr Stevens by telephone seeking to confirm an aspect of the oral evidence he had already tendered to the hearing, specifically asking whether he had influenced the contents of Mr Stevens’ written statement on the case which was prepared months prior. During the brief telephone call, Mr Stevens confirmed that Mr Villella had not instructed him what to write in his statement.
The review found that Mr Villella made the phone call from a phone which was not his own and at the end of the call asked Mr Stevens to remove the call from his call register.
Mr Villella then approached Mr Stevens in the foyer of the VRT prior to the commencement of proceedings the following morning on 24 February 2021. In doing so, Mr Villella initiated a further brief exchange with Mr Stevens in which he sought to reaffirm his telephone enquiry of the preceding evening.
Mr Stevens notified RV legal counsel representing the Stewards in this matter of the phone call during a break in proceedings that morning prior to Mr Villella giving further oral evidence to the VRT.
On the day proceedings were withdrawn by RV Stewards, Mr Villella initiated contact with Mr Stevens for a third time making a phone call to Mr Stevens to enquire as to whether he had disclosed their brief conversations of 23 and/or 24 February to a third party. Mr Stevens indicated that he had, and the call terminated shortly thereafter.
Whilst there was no evidence of attempts to collude, falsify, or fabricate evidence, based on Mr Villella’s telephone call and in the interests of maintaining RV’s commitment to the highest standards of integrity, legal counsel advised RV to withdraw the charges. This advice was accepted and enacted by RV Stewards on 25 February 2021.
The review determined that Mr Villella’s behaviour in contacting his colleague, in breach of a direct instruction of the VRT, amounts to serious misconduct and does not reflect the standards required of an RV Integrity Services Department (ISD) member.
Having thoroughly considered all the circumstances, including the strong record of Mr Villella over more than 25 years of employment with RV and his remorse, RV determined that the appropriate action was for Mr Villella to be disciplined in respect of the matter.
Mr Villella has been relieved of his position as Manager of the Compliance Assurance Team, counselled for his conduct, and will undertake additional education and training to ensure this conduct is not repeated.
The additional education and training being provided to Mr Villella will also be provided more broadly to ISD team members.
RV is satisfied of Mr Villella’s ability to undertake a revised role as a Raceday Stipendiary Steward, in the future, after a period of leave.
Having reviewed documents relating to RV’s review of the matter, the VRIB has advised RV it had undertaken a reasonable process and that it was open to RV to impose the proposed disciplinary action.
In providing this update, RV would also like to acknowledge Mr Stevens’ role in bringing this matter to light and thank him for upholding the high standard of integrity expected of ISD team members in challenging circumstances. In doing so, RV further notes the VRIB’s endorsement of Mr Stevens’ conduct.
RV acknowledges the importance of maintaining the highest integrity standards to ensure participant and community confidence in the sport. This is and remains a primary focus for RV.
RV notes that the Racing Integrity Commissioner continues to examine the conduct of the stewards and it will continue to cooperate fully with that examination process and, if appropriate to do so, will make a further statement at its conclusion.
The Victorian Racing Integrity Board is an independent cross-code integrity board that oversees the delivery of integrity functions by Racing Victoria, Greyhound Racing Victoria, and Harness Racing Victoria (the three racing controlling bodies). The Board was established to enhance the Victorian Racing Industry's integrity framework and ensure racing integrity in Victoria is subject to an independent and transparent system of checks and balances.
The Racing Integrity Commissioner is an independent statutory officer, appointed by the Governor in Council under the Racing Act 1956 (Vic). The RIC is charged with providing independent oversight of integrity within the three racing codes (Racing Victoria, Greyhound Racing Victoria, and Harness Racing Victoria) and to enable public confidence in the integrity of the Victorian Racing Industry.