By Julien Pretot
BESANCON France (Reuters) - Less than a year after taking over from Pat McQuaid in farcical circumstances, International Cycling Union (UCI) president Brian Cookson is facing a barrage of criticism over his handling of the governing body.
Members of the sport's Ethics Commission have been replaced in controversial fashion, a high profile doping case was not disclosed to the media and last month, 2013 Tour de France champion Chris Froome was granted a therapeutical use exemption (TUE) in disputable manner.
Shortly after Cookson was elected UCI president in Florence during a spectacular congress - the Ethics Commission, the guardian of the ethical principles of the UCI’s Code of Ethics, was subject to a major overhaul.
Dutchman Peter Zevenbergen, who brought up claims against Russian Igor Makarov, one of the biggest supporters of Cookson in his election campaign, was asked to leave his job, he claims.
"It is quite simple: the new management committee did not accept my criticism," Zevenbergen told Reuters on Tuesday.
Article 14 of the Code of Ethics of the UCI state that the members of the Ethics Commission "shall be irremovable", unless they die or resign.
"I think those who were in the congress meeting last year would have been disappointed with the performance of the Ethics Committee as it was represented, Cookson told reporters on Tuesday.
"I think that it was quite clear that we had to change. We have got a new ethics commission now, all the members of the commission have been renewed. People we have are of the highest quality."
Zevenbergen said that he received a visit from Martin Gibbs, the UCI director general, in late December, 2013, as the Ethics Commission was investigating claims that Russian federation president Makarov had promised one million euros ($1.36 million)to the Union Europenne de Cyclisme (UEC) in exchange for a Cookson vote.
"Martin Gibbs came to Amsterdam to discuss this with me on the 27th of December. I would not say he asked me to resign, there was some pressure, he said he did not want to continue with me.
"He said if I stayed, it (the Ethics Commission president job) would be an empty function.
"As a consequence Peter Barth from Germany resigned from the commission."
Sources told Reuters that Barth, who left his job in April, felt the independence of the Ethics Commission could not be guaranteed anymore.
Last month Froome, who rides for Team Sky, was handed a TUE for a steroid-based drugs so he could ride the Tour de Romandie with a chest infection.
Member teams of the Mouvement Pour un Cyclicme Credible (Movement for Credible Cycling, MPCC) prevent their riders from competing while under steroid-based treatment but Team Sky is not one of them.
It was, however, the way the TUE was granted that was subject to debate.
CAN DO BETTER
Regulations state that "the UCI shall appoint a committee of at least 3 (three) physicians to consider requests for TUEs", yet only the UCI doctor Mario Zorzolli was involved in granting Froome a TUE.
Asked why the UCI would bypass its own regulations, Cookson said: "Not strictly true. The commission had given delegation to the UCI's doctor to make those decisions
"It would have applied to any other rider."
Cookson pointed out that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had not seen anything untoward but the Briton added that from now on, only the three-man panel would decide on TUEs.
"But we can do a better job. We will now change our procedure," he said.
"We have reconfirmed the members of the TUE commission and we have ensured that from now on decisions about TUEs are not taken by one single individual but taken by a panel of TUE experts."
Last week, Russian Denis Menchov, who retired after winning the Giro and the Vuelta, was retrospectively stripped of all his Tour de France results from 2009, 2010 and 2012 after irregularities in his biological passport were found.
The UCI failed to communicate this to the public or the media despite usually sending out a statement once a doping case is closed. It simply put a pdf document on its website without advertising it.
It only sent a statement after some media discovered the pdf file.
Reuters understands that the case was opened in April 2013, and in September 2013, when Cookson took over from McQuaid, negotiations were still ongoing between the UCI legal department and Menchov.
"We would put out a press release at the end of the process," McQuaid told reporters on Tuesday.
"I think you have to be upfront and when your system is working and working well you need to be able to state that.
"You need to make statements when you catch big guys and Menchov is a big guy."
Cookson denied there could be a link between this way of communicating and him having been backed by Makarov, the founder of Menchov's Katusha team, during the UCI election campaign.
"I understand the implications of that," said Cookson, who insisted on transparency during his election campaign.
"It was not hidden at all. If I look at it, probably it would have been better if we had made a more positive announcement.
"I have not spoken to Mr Makarov about this and I haven't seen him since a management committee back in June so I understand why people say these things but it's not true," he added.
Last September's UCI election in Florence which ended in Cookson's appointment, involved wrangling between delegates, lawyers arguing and eventually Cookson storming the podium and demanding a vote on the presidency which he won.
($1 = 0.7331 Euros)
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Tony Goodson)