ASADA praised James Hird

EXCLUSIVE

The full details of a taped meeting between Essendon footballers and a senior Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigator last year reveal the assurances players received about their predicament in the drugs scandal and a favourable appraisal of James Hird and the role of Stephen Dank.

Fairfax Media can reveal excerpts of a transcript from the electronic recording taken by lawyer Tony Hargreaves on May 6, 2013, when ASADA investigator Paul Simonsson updated players in a boardroom briefing. The transcript was recently disallowed as evidence in the Federal Court case between Essendon and Hird against ASADA.

The transcript details how Simonsson told the Bombers that, in his view, contentious peptide AOD-9604 "shouldn't have been on the WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] list" and "shouldn't have been listed as a prohibited drug".

The transcript also documents Simonsson's seemingly favourable assessment of Dank, the biochemist that ASADA now wants to ban from sport for life over the supplements programs he oversaw for Essendon and the NRL's Cronulla. At the May meeting last year, Simonsson told Essendon players that Dank "honestly believes he hasn't done anything wrong here. And in terms of a WADA breach, I think that's probably going to be the case".

Simonsson's assessment of Hird, who at the time of the meeting had completed his sole interview with ASADA but was still some three months off receiving a 12-month ban from the AFL, was that "the coach was given a massive tick of approval in terms of his integrity".

Simonsson recommended that Essendon players, who were soon to be interviewed by ASADA, "look to him [Hird] to give you guys guidance".

Simonsson was also complimentary of the conduct of then-Essendon chairman David Evans and CEO Ian Robson.

"I could not be happier with what's happening down here … it's been fantastic," Simonsson said in the meeting.

However, in the weeks that ensued, both Evans and Robson were casualties of a doping probe that - 18 months after it was publicly launched by authorities - remains unresolved.

Hird was also present at the May 6 meeting, along with Robson, who is now CEO of the Melbourne Victory, and former Bomber football boss Danny Corcoran who was suspended for four months by the AFL in August and has quit the club.

In Federal Court a fortnight ago Neil Young, QC, who was representing Essendon, said the recording of the meeting should be included in the three-day hearing before Justice John Middleton. However Daniel Star, acting for ASADA, objected to the use of what he termed a "covert security transcript", and accused Essendon of running a "trial by ambush" by attempting to include the evidence late.

It emerged through submissions for the court case that the meeting transpired because Bomber players were highly anxious about their playing futures and, in some cases, felt unable to leave their homes.

It was Evans, apparently, who was able to persuade ASADA that the players should be updated on where they stood.

More than a year later, 34 current and former Essendon players were issued show cause notices from ASADA for alleged use of banned Thymosin Beta-4. The transcript seen by Fairfax Media documenting the May 6 meeting makes no reference to the peptide that is on WADA's prohibited list. Instead, Simonsson briefed the players about the highly contentious status of peptide AOD-9604.

While it was not until August this year – the same month that Essendon players were issued show cause notices – that ASADA formally stated no Australian athlete would be pursued over use of AOD-9604 before April 22, 2013, Simonsson told the players in May, 2013, that "I don't believe it should have ever been on the [WADA] prohibited list".

His position was at odds with that being put forward by WADA at the time – that AOD-9604 had fallen under the SO section of the Prohibited List since 2011 because WADA said it had not been deemed fit for human consumption.

Speaking about AOD-9604 at the May, 2013, meeting with Essendon players, the transcript of the recorded meeting documents Simonsson telling the footballers that "...if there's no product that we say is a prohibited substance, no one gets charged, and we just publish a report that talks about how the investigation process ran.

"If we were going to try and prosecute everyone in the room for having been given AOD I would have to submit a Brief to the Attorney General Solicitor to say I don't think it's in the interest of the public to spend money trying to force a WADA breach when the likelihood of success is very, very, very low."

According to the transcript, Simonsson also told the players: "I do not think that you are going to have a problem."

Fairfax has been unable to reach Simonsson for comment.

The full detail of the ASADA-Essendon players meeting provides fresh context as to why Jobe Watson might have felt so open to talk about his alleged use of AOD-9604 in a candid television interview in late June last year.

Ultimately, ASADA never pursued use of AOD-9604. Thymosin Beta-4 is the only prohibited substance mentioned in the show cause notices served to Essendon players.

The next step in the Essendon case appears to hinge on the outcome of the Federal Court case the club and Hird launched against ASADA.

The story ASADA praised James Hird first appeared on WA Today.

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