USOC Reviewing USA Badminton Donor Getting Board Spot
The USOC is reviewing an allegation that USA Badminton improperly gave a major donor a board position that is supposed to be reserved for people without financial connections. At issue is Yucca Rieschel, a Seattle woman who was appointed in November as an independent director. She pledged in '17 a gift to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation with the dedicated purpose of helping USA Badminton hire and pay a national team coach through '24. It is common for nonprofit directors to donate to their organization, but this situation raises new questions about standards for independence. Since the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal, the USOC has pushed NGBs to add and empower independent directors, hoping to curtail the influence of insiders who can have conflicts of interest. However, some critics are pushing back, questioning how USOC and the NGBs define independence. The size of Rieschel’s donation is not precisely known, but it is supporting a senior hire whose salary will probably comprise at least 10% of USAB’s budget. “Her stake in the donated money received by USA Badminton from the USOPF would affect her judgment to make the correct choices as a USA Badminton board director, and invalidates her qualifications as an ‘independent director,’” said Alistair Casey, an L.A.-based badminton coach who made the complaint.
CLEARED EARLIER BY ETHICS CHAIR: In November emails to Casey, then-USAB ethics chair Diane Cornell said her committee found no conflicts of interest when it reviewed Rieschel. After interviews with her and USOC officials, the committee determined Rieschel did not expect a quid pro quo, Cornell said, and a donation, by itself, does not invalidate independence under USAB bylaws. Cornell wrote all indications were that Rieschel’s "motivation for the donation was to promote the sport of badminton in the United States, and was not for any personal gain or benefit.” Cornell also wrote that Rieschel had no ability to influence the coach search. However, neither Rieschel nor other USAB officials responded when asked if she will recuse herself. USA Badminton spokesperson Doug Ingels said, "While there is a current third-party review taking place based on the complaint, USA Badminton and its board of directors stand by the initial ethics check that was completed prior to Yucca Rieschel's appointment on the board." Current board chair Ben Lee, who started in January, said he only recently learned of the complaint, and referred questions to his predecessor David Simon. Simon did not respond to questions. Lee: "I would like any investigation to clear up the uncertainty of the circumstances surrounding this issue. If there are any conflicts, then we should address them so that we can move forward as an NGB making a positive impact on the sport of badminton and empowering our athletes to succeed." Independence has a straightforward definition, experts said. A donor may not present the same risk as a vendor, but it’s still a connection, they said. “You’d have to really torture the definition to get that to be found as independent,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a Univ. of Colorado professor who studies sports governance. Pielke noted that boards may have good reasons for wanting donors or insiders, who have expertise and passion that’s hard to find. "It’s a different question of whether that’s OK or not, given the context of the board,” Pielke said. "But it’s clearly not independent."
DONATION CALLED GAME-CHANGER: When Rieschel’s donation was announced, CEO Jeff Dyrek called it a “complete game-changer.” Then-USOC Chief of Sport Performance Alan Ashley called her gift “transformative.” The coach job would likely pay between $100,000-150,000 annually, according to search consultants who reviewed the posting. USA Badminton’s '17 revenue was about $750,000, and Dryek earned $123,000 that year. The USOC has hired a law firm to review the matter, USOC spokesperson Mark Jones confirmed. At a minimum, Casey said, he wants Rieschel to sign conflict-of-interest disclosures and promise to recuse herself from discussions and decisions about the coach job.