EJ Obiena

DOCUMENTS: How a Philippine sports system failed EJ Obiena

Beatrice Go
DOCUMENTS: How a Philippine sports system failed EJ Obiena
Rappler obtains documents that disclose pole vaulter EJ Obiena's correspondence with PATAFA

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) decided to expel EJ Obiena from the national team and charge him with a criminal case of estafa, following an internal investigation where it noted how the pole vault star had created a wedge between the national federation and coach Vitaly Petrov. 

This, PATAFA said, prevented the organization from contacting Petrov and paying the Ukrainian coach directly. (TIMELINE: Falling out with PATAFA mars EJ Obiena rise

Rappler managed to obtain documents verified by Obiena’s camp that show the full email exchanges between the 26-year-old and his national federation that refute PATAFA’s allegations in the internal investigation and reveal the system he had to submit to.

In the email thread below, Obiena is seen requesting PATAFA to pay his coach and team staff directly for the past two years. He also sent Petrov’s bank details way back on June 8, 2020.   

PATAFA presented the same email in a virtual press conference on Tuesday, January 4, but omitted Obiena’s replies.

In several other press conferences and hearings, Obiena reiterated he had asked PATAFA to pay his coaches and team directly – which he stated again in his Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) budget proposal for the 2024 Paris Olympics. 

Obiena submitted the proposal to PATAFA on August 24, 2021. 

In other correspondence and documents below, Obiena also explained to PATAFA why he had to channel the coaching payments to a third party – a bank account owned by American sports patron Jim Lafferty.

Lafferty has supported Obiena’s career operationally and financially. He also acts as Obiena’s agent when engaging in contracts with sponsors, while Lafferty’s wife Carol is a sports nutritionist and dietitian. Another major athlete Lafferty supported was Philippine long jump queen Marestella Torres during her 2016 Rio Olympics bid.

Private funding is nothing new for national athletes as they receive financial support both from the government through the PSC and privately through individual sponsors or organizations.

In several documents, Obiena, who trains in Italy, explained how Lafferty helped him with his finances.

Obiena had been receiving the coaching payments from PATAFA in Philippine pesos, and the athlete had been shouldering the bank transfer fees that have amounted to a total of P150,000 and which would cost an average of $50 (P2,500) per transfer. This is why, he said, he requested Lafferty to assist in his financial transactions.

In previous interviews, Petrov confirmed that Obiena fully paid him for his coaching service from 2018 to 2021, but admitted that the payments for 2018 to 2019 were late.

Obiena, ranked No. 5 in the world in the latest pole vault rankings, also said in an email to PATAFA that he “did not want” nor “choose to be the module of payment,” but cooperated with his home federation out of trust and respect for his team.

Omitted replies

In a PATAFA press conference on January 4, its investigative committee showed a copy-pasted email reply from treasurer Rosilia “Lucy” Artiaga, who suggested to Obiena that the federation directly pay Petrov or let the coach sign an acknowledgment receipt.

PATAFA’s findings concluded that based on the email exchange on October 30, 2021, the pole vaulter “refused” to give Petrov’s bank details. 

“The foregoing email shows that it was EJ Obiena who refused to give PATAFA the bank account of Mr. Petrov and not the other way around,” PATAFA said during its presentation to the media. But this was already refuted by Obiena.

From PATAFA’s presentation

But Obiena’s camp revealed the full email exchange that included the pole vault star’s replies to Artiaga (text highlighted in pink below). PATAFA failed to disclose Obiena’s replies (text in black) during the January 4 press conference.

Obiena replied to the email on October 31, 2021, saying that his priority is to train and compete for the Philippines, but that he still tries to find time to handle liquidation matters despite the added work. 

“During the season, I believe my number one priority is to train and compete the best that I could po and liquidation comes next po,” wrote Obiena in the email reply. 

“If you can see naman po as soon as you email me I try to respond as soon as I can if not within a day or two if it is a non-competition day. Minsan nga po kahit competition day na ako nakatanggap ng email sinasagot ko pa rin (Sometimes even on competition days, I reply to the emails I receive).” 

Obiena also pointed PATAFA back to his email over a year earlier, dated June 8, 2020, that contained Petrov’s bank details. 

“I sent an email back in June 8, 2020 (subject: letter for F/A for coaching fee of Vitaly sending Vitaly’s bank details for this specific coaching fee to be sent directly to him,” wrote Obiena. 

PATAFA noted in the email that the national federation directly paid the coaches of its other elite athletes training overseas, like Natalie Uy, Eric Cray, and Kristina Knott. Thus, Obiena’s case has been a curious setup, despite PATAFA having Petrov’s bank details in its file.

Rappler contacted PATAFA president Philip Juico and chairman Rufus Rodriguez for comment on information that the association already had Petrov’s bank details back in 2020, yet did not bother to pay him directly, as it did with the coaches of other athletes training abroad.

An email was sent to PATAFA and a Viber message to Juico on January 12, a text message to Rodriguez on January 13, and a phone call to Rodriguez on January 14. Rappler has yet to receive a response from the officials and we will update this story as soon as we hear from them.

Obiena also emailed his Paris 2024 budget proposal to PATAFA last August 24, 2021.

In the recommendations portion, Obiena wrote the need for PATAFA or the Philippine Sports Commission to pay the members of his elite sports team directly: 

“Direct payment to the party involved for coaching, osteopath, physio and psychology to avoid unnecessary banking fees and streamline payment procedure and liquidation.” 

“Payment on the first Monday each month for the services to be done for that month to avoid awkward situation. (coaching, osteopath, physio and psychology).” 

PATAFA questioned in its October 30, 2021 email why Obiena coursed the coaching payments to Lafferty’s bank account.

Obiena explained he had to channel the payments to Lafferty since PATAFA sends funds in Philippine pesos and he had to shoulder the bank transfer fees. Obiena then requested again that PATAFA pay Petrov and his team directly in euros. 

Kasi po dapat talaga patafa po naman ang magsesend ng payroll at hindi po ako. Ilang beses ko na po inilagay iyan sa budget proposal na kung pwede kayo po ang magpadala ng pera at wag sa peso. Dahil nga po ako ang sumasalo ng transfer fee,” wrote Obiena in the October 30, 2021 email exchange. 

(PATAFA should be the one sending the payroll and not me. I repeatedly put that in the budget proposal that if possible, you [PATAFA] be the one to send the money and not in pesos. This is because I’m the one having to shoulder the transfer fees.) 

“Ate Lucy may I just respectfully remind po na this is what I have been proposing po from the start except for the cook as I am paying him directly.”

Kung mababasa niyo po dito naglagay na po ako ng recommendation to directly pay the (coach, osteopath and physio and psychology).” (If you read it here in the [budget proposal email], I put a recommendation to directly pay the coach, osteopath and physio and psychologist.)

“I did not want this nor did I choose to be the module of payment for my team, but I cooperated due to the trust to my mother organization and respect to my team members to get them paid as soon as possible as you have known some of them worked for a year po without payment,” said Obiena.

“This is additional work I need to tend to and as you have said should not have been the case.” 

Channeling the payments

In PATAFA’s January 4 presentation, the federation’s estafa charge against Obiena was based on the 6,000 euros worth of funds for Petrov’s salary, which were allegedly not liquidated from May 2018 to August 2018. PATAFA did not elaborate on what kind of estafa charge would be taken up against Obiena.

Though PATAFA recorded that Petrov received the total of 85,000 euros, the federation questioned the payments that went through Lafferty and Obiena’s joint bank account with his mother, Jeanette.

The joint bank account with Obiena’s mother, Rappler learned, was necessary for the transactions as only an authorized representative based in the Philippines could facilitate the purchase of dollars. Obiena was training abroad.

The timeline of transactions provided by PATAFA, though, shows that Petrov received his full payment, only that it was delayed. Petrov received the payments on November 19 and 24, 2020, and November 4, 5, and 9, 2021.

“While there are other proof of payments presented by Mr. Petrov, these (in red font) cannot be considered as payments from EJ Obiena because these payments did not directly come from EJ Obiena, but from an unknown dollar account in Arab Bank, and from his mother, Jeanette Obiena,” said PATAFA.

“Obviously, the remittances/transfers from Arab Bank and from Jeanette Obiena were restored in order to cover the irregularities committed by EJ Obiena and to make it appear that Mr. Petrov was paid his coaching fees when in fact he was not.”

“Based on the proof of payments sent by Mr. Petrov, the first payment he directly received from EJ Obiena was EUR 3000 in September 2020 for his coaching fee and virtual competition bonuses which is 28 months delayed compared to when EJ received budget for coaching fee dated May 2018.”

PATAFA did not disclose that the payments from Jeanette were off a joint bank account with EJ. The national federation also accused Jeanette, who works as PATAFA’s auditor, of misappropriation of funds worth P624,116.76, which is the amount of the PATAFA PNB check dated June 17, 2019.

In the House Committee on Youth and Sports Development hearing on December 14, Lafferty disclosed that he owns the Arab dollar bank account. The third-party bank account, he said, was needed to convert the amount Obiena received in pesos to euros to be able to transfer funds to Petrov’s account.

According to Lafferty, Obiena had paid him first before the sports patron transferred out the money to Petrov based on the slides he presented to the House.

From Lafferty’s presentation at the House committee hearing

‘Broken’ system

PATAFA further argued that Obiena sent acknowledgment receipts for May 2019 to November 2019, which were allegedly falsified as Petrov signed the receipts before receiving the amount based on the timeline of transactions. 

But in the House hearing, Lafferty explained that PSC and PATAFA “accepted” the system of filing acknowledgment receipts before the funding could be disbursed.

The process included PATAFA asking for a receipt or documentation first, when an athlete requests funding, especially for emergency expenses. If the athlete cannot afford to pay for the service first, he has to ask the service provider to sign the receipt first, so that PATAFA can forward the request to the PSC.

“It basically forces athletes to front the money and then they only get reimbursed after a long period of time so it requires an athlete to have money to begin with. And when they don’t have money to begin with, [they] are in a constant system of managing cash flow,” said Lafferty last December 14. (READ: EJ Obiena’s patron hits at ‘broken system’ in PATAFA row)

In his House presentation, Lafferty showed the acknowledgment receipts dated September 15, 2021 signed by Petrov and physiologist Francesco Viscusi for their services that month. Obiena emailed the receipts to PATAFA on October 14, 2021 and PATAFA forwarded these to the PSC on October 27, 2021.

From Lafferty’s presentation at the House committee hearing

“I know EJ is trustworthy, and I know he is good [with] the money, and I know he is overburdened by administration to start with,” said Petrov in an interview last December, confirming that he had been fully paid. (READ: I was tricked’: Obiena coach says no time for ‘witch hunt’)

“I know that the money is late because of PATAFA’s inefficiency. As said, I coach because I love coaching. I don’t focus on these matters,” Petrov said.

His latest statement led PATAFA to file a complaint before World Athletics for violation of the Integrity Code of Conduct. It also led to the termination of his contract as Obiena’s coach. These were all part of the recommendations of the internal investigation.

PATAFA said in the press conference that the previous statements of Obiena’s camp were disregarded as the pole vaulter failed to appear before the investigation, thus leaving the officials with no choice but to consider only the findings of the investigative committee.

But PATAFA has deferred enactment of the recommendations by the internal investigative committee and has given Obiena and his camp until January 20, 2022 to complete liquidation. The PSC has also offered Obiena, PATAFA, and the Philippine Olympic Committee to submit to a formal mediation process.

On Christmas eve, Obiena wrote on his Facebook page that all he wants is to clear his name and be freed from the system that caused his mess. 

“What is left is a clearing of my good name, my full reinstatement, and necessary changes to the system to avoid this situation to ever happen again and avoid this burden being placed on athletes,” said Obiena. – Rappler.com

Beatrice Go

More commonly known as Bee, Beatrice Go is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Philippine sports governance, national teams, football, and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.