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Eden Park boss - what Aussie court found

The new chief executive of Eden Park was dismissed from a key role at a sports stadium in Melbourne for serious misconduct, including trading free tickets for his personal benefit, and "elements of dishonesty".

Nick Sautner, a former Aussie rules star in Victoria, took over the top job at Eden Park at the end of last year, after a stint working for the West Australian Football Commission following his ousting from the Melbourne role.

A Federal Court case revealed Sautner regarded tickets to major events at Etihad Stadium as 'currency' and he used them as barter for 'mates' rates' repair work on his home, for membership of the Qantas Club, for Bunnings and supermarket vouchers, gym membership, locksmith work, a new car battery, and even flowers.

The Eden Park Trust says it did extensive reference checking of the 40-year-old Australian before appointing him to two separate jobs, that his Melbourne exit was the result of a clash of personalities with his previous boss and it has full confidence in his performance and character.

Trust chairman Doug McKay said he had expected Sautner's promotion at Eden Park might trigger attention to his past - and thanked Newsroom for raising questions over the appointment process. McKay had personally vetted Sautner with referees in Australia and New Zealand before the full board made him chief executive.

One referee told McKay that Sautner's issue in Melbourne was one of "pragmatism over principle" and that he had lacked a mentor there.

But McKay was not personally aware of the full extent of the Federal Court's findings and comments about Sautner. "I do not think I read if from cover to cover. I knew it was a decision that did not go in his favour."

The employment case over his Melbourne dismissal went to the Australian Federal Court where a full bench found unanimously against him. It reversed a lower court ruling granting him A$150,000 in severance. Reports of his conduct and on the case are easily searchable via Google.

The court found the company he worked for had a policy barring such use of tickets and noted Sautner had told an earlier court hearing "the policy did not apply to him and he had access to an unlimited number of tickets".

"He could have distributed the tickets without seeking any benefit in return. He did not do so because his motivating purpose was to use the tickets like cash, specifically his own cash"

- Australian Federal Court judgment from 2015

Texts from Sautner and others about the ticket trades over a period of nine months were aired in the legal action but the Federal Court found it was not contained to just those occasions and "Sautner had not engaged in such conduct on isolated occasions".

The Federal Court judgment, from 2015, says Sautner also got a junior staff member to use three different credit cards and apply for 36 tickets for him for the British Lions vs Australia second rugby test in 2013, despite the Australian Rugby Union having a firm rule that only a maximum of four could be purchased in any circumstance. Melbourne Stadiums Ltd, for whom Sautner was chief commercial officer, was a partner of the ARU.

He was "responsible at the stadium for ticketing matters".

"The person responsible to MSL for ensuring the integrity of its ticketing system blatantly rorted that system.This is serious misconduct," the top court said.

Moreover, Sautner took pictures of his chief executive at the time asleep on an aircraft and in a car when they travelled to London together and showed them to a staff member and to an executive of Etihad, the stadium naming sponsor. The Federal Court found the photos were solely intended to ridicule the boss and undermine his reputation as the chief executive.

"No one would expect that, after an international flight, they would be at risk of a subordinate employee taking their photograph while they slept for the purpose of using the photograph to later ridicule them. Doing so represents a serious breach of trust."

Sautner playing for the Sandringham Zebras in Melbourne back in 2005. Photo: Getty Images

Tickets as cash

Sautner's actions in Melbourne are laid bare in the Federal Court judgment. "It should not be overlooked that Mr Sautner's purpose was to treat his unlimited access to tickets as cash, that is as a supplementary form of income. Whatever 'for their personal use' meant in the policy, on no reading would that purpose be authorised."

It said if Sautner had wanted to maximise attendance at the stadium "he could have distributed the tickets without seeking any benefit in return. He did not do so because his motivating purpose was to use the tickets like cash, specifically his own cash."

On the Lions vs Wallabies test tickets, the court said Sautner knew the tickets would be in high demand and knew there was a four ticket limit. He had a subordinate buy more than that, using three separate credit cards to secure 36 and then asking the staff member to print the tickets without the names of the purchasers on them.

"It cannot be overlooked that Mr Sautner exploited his position of seniority to [the junior staff member] to get her to do that which she also knew was wrong."

On the photographing of his chief executive, the court said "the only available inference was that Mr Sautner took the photographs intending to use them in some way to disparage or ridicule [the CEO] in his capacity as the CEO of Melbourne Stadiums Ltd."

The court considered text messages in which Sautner ridiculed the boss's taste in clothes and expressed delight in him "not having been upgraded for a flight".

It adds: "Mr Sautner embarked on a deliberate course of action with the sole intention of undermining the reputation of his own CEO."

In a section subtitled 'Cumulative effect of dishonesty', the judgment found "each of the other classes of misconduct was deliberate, involved elements of dishonesty, and of its very nature struck at the heart of the trust relationship between Mr Sautner and MSL". 

Move to Auckland

By the time the Federal Court ruled the Melbourne stadium was within its rights to dismiss Sautner for serious misconduct, he was then working in Perth. That state's football authority did not speak up for him and local media reported several clubs had concerns over Sautner's background and presence in their game.

He left that role and after a time with one of the WA sport's sponsors, emerged in Auckland winning the role of General Manager Commercial for Eden Park, where he is credited with bringing in a number of corporate sponsors and has introduced a temporary golf course on the main field, zip line rides and mooted using the park as a base for flying drones.

The Eden Park Trust, an independent body of five government appointees, two from Auckland Council, and two representatives from Auckland Rugby and Auckland Cricket runs the stadium.

It elevated Sautner to the chief executive role in November when the previous boss Guy Ngata took a new job in Dubai. His dismissal and failed court case was well documented in Australian media but was not picked up in media here or mentioned in positive coverage in industry newsletters. Ngata knew of the Melbourne case when he first gave Sautner a job and Ngata did tell McKay.

The trust's press release announcing his appointment as chief executive said only: "Mr Sautner had 15 years' experience in the stadium, event and entertainment sectors. He has worked at the AFL, Melbourne's Etihad Stadium and the West Australian Football Commission in Perth in various executive roles including chief commercial officer and chief operating officer."

McKay said in the release Sautner was "the outstanding candidate for the role given his experience and his significant contribution since arriving at Eden Park in June 2016".

Eden Park has lauded Sautner's commercial achievements at the stadium, pulling in Kia Motors, Samsung, Kennards Hire, Vodafone, Powerade and AA Insurance as partners.

Sautner said in the press release: "I look forward to working collaboratively with our venue hirers, local community, council and government, corporate sponsors and contractors for the benefit of the people of Auckland."

Eden Park sees opportunities for "new and different events" and Sautner has helped launched the park's bid to host a 'Live Aid' style concert to raise money for Sir Ray Avery's baby pod incubator project. The concert bid has struck controversy, with former Prime Minister Helen Clark, a local resident, accusing the park of using the charity event as a 'Trojan horse' to win approval for future concerts, and criticising the lack of noise controls or community input.  A telephone survey of locals was criticised as 'push polling' to try to engender support for concerts at the park.

On his own website, Sautner features an interview he gave the Venue Management Association newsletter which asked: "What’s the best advice you’ve been given?" To which he answered:
"Always act with honesty, integrity and determination and be the change you wish to see in the world."

In an interview today with Newsroom, McKay backed that view.

He said: "Here's a young guy who has clearly made some mistakes but I do not accept any character weaknesses from what we know."

The chairman added: "I'm sitting here very, very comfortable. We understood the issues, how they played out. I did talk to Nick about all of them."

Eden Park had put no restrictions around Sautner and tickets for major events and McKay did not think the chief executive had tickets at his disposal, even for corporate sponsors or partners.  McKay said he personally signed all expenses and entertainment costs incurred by Sautner, but that was consistent with good corporate practice.

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