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USA Fencing Shares Findings of USOPC Compliance Investigation and Our Plans to Address Them

12/15/2022, 10:00am CST
By Bryan Wendell

A letter from the USOPC to members of the USA Fencing community outlines the results of a yearlong compliance investigation by the USOPC into concerns raised by members. Here’s the letter and our response.

Updated, Dec. 19: Read the clarification letter sent by the USOPC to USA Fencing members.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — At USA Fencing, transparency and an openness to change are among our core values. 

In that spirit, today we’re sharing with members of our community a letter from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

The six-page letter, which is addressed to members of the USA Fencing community, outlines the results of a yearlong compliance investigation by the USOPC into concerns members raised regarding USA Fencing’s governance, compliance with our grievance procedures, operational performance, leadership, athlete engagement and conflicts of interest.

The letter includes four key findings and three formal recommendations — each of which we’ll outline below along with our plan to seriously address these issues.

We’ve made great progress in that effort already — a fact the USOPC acknowledges in its conclusion. The USOPC writes that USA Fencing “experienced several challenges in mid- to late 2021, but the organization’s efforts in the last year have shown that it is committed to implementing best practices and to providing communication and support to its members on important issues such as complaint intake and resolution.”

But we still have work to do.

“We appreciate the willingness of our members to share their concerns with the USOPC and for their participation in the USOPC’s investigation,” says David Arias, chair of USA Fencing’s Board of Directors. “We understand this has been a difficult process for the parties involved.  We’re glad to bring this chapter to a close and look forward to making progress on the objectives included in our Strategic Plan.”

“We thrive on feedback, and this USOPC investigation is no exception,” adds USA Fencing CEO Phil Andrews. “Next, we want to hear our members’ feedback on these recommendations from the USOPC as we continue to take positive steps toward the future.”

Moreover, we are currently undergoing a routine USOPC audit and look forward to further enhancing our policies and governance procedures when the findings from that report are shared with USA Fencing early next year.

As an organization, we’ve learned from the missteps in our past and are committed to our core values — among them transparency and openness to change.

So What Happened?

The letter from the USOPC to USA Fencing community members documents the facts in detail (in Section III, “Overview”), but the basics are these:

In August 2021, shortly after the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the USOPC began receiving complaints largely related to USA Fencing’s Board of Directors, the performance of some of the Board’s members and the overall governance of the organization. 

In October 2021, the Board voted to appoint David Arias as Board chair, replacing the previous Board president and bringing about a new process for how the leader of the Board of Directors is selected. 

Under the new system, instead of USA Fencing members voting for a Board president through a general election, members of the Board of Directors select a chair from among the pool of at-large directors. (At-large directors, unlike independent directors, are selected by a vote of members.) This new system matches the governance procedures found in most other national governing bodies. 

After the removal of the previous Board president, members voiced their concerns about the process by which he was removed. 

While these governance issues were going on, USA Fencing and its members were also impacted by the pending SafeSport investigation into men’s epee fencer Alen Hadzic, which began in mid-2020 and continued through the Tokyo Olympics. The case is still awaiting a resolution from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and because it is still pending, USA Fencing can offer no further comment at this time.

When Did the USOPC Get Involved?

The USOPC launched a formal compliance investigation in November 2021. 

Between November 2021 and September 2022, the USOPC interviewed 21 people, including six current or former staff members, 14 current or former athletes (including four current or former athlete board members), and one former committee member. To allow for an open and honest discussion, the identity of these interviewees remains confidential.

What Did the USOPC Find?

Their findings are outlined in Section IV of the letter (and clarified in the Dec. 16 follow-up clarification) and summarized below:

  • Finding No. 1: USA Fencing should consider more effective means of communication to socialize future changes that impact members.

  • Finding No. 2: USA Fencing should consider formal succession planning for key leadership positions.

  • Finding No. 3: The Nominating Committee could have benefitted from additional guidance in carrying out its responsibilities as it considered candidates for President.

  • Finding No. 4: USA Fencing has not responded to or followed up on complaints, or timely responded to complaints.

What Did the USOPC Recommend?

  • Recommendation No. 1: USA Fencing should consider more broadly sharing information regarding the reasons for organization-wide changes, particularly changes that affect members.

  • Recommendation No. 2: USA Fencing’s Board of Directors should consider developing a formal succession plan for key leadership positions including independent Board members, athlete representatives, the Board Chair, and the CEO.

  • Recommendation No. 3: USA Fencing’s Board of Directors should consider working with USA Fencing’s national office to develop more specific guidance and procedures for the Nominating Committee.

How Does USA Fencing Respond?

More Transparent Board Decisions

Active, transparent, open and conversational communication has become a priority for USA Fencing. After each Board meeting, we now distribute on our website a summary of the decisions made and — where necessary — the rationale behind those decisions. 

During months with a board meeting, this news is also shared with the 50,000-plus subscribers to 5 Minutes With Phil, the monthly newsletter from our CEO.

“Our goal is to increase the conversation with our membership — in both directions,” Andrews says. “As we look ahead to some updates to our bylaws and disciplinary processes in 2023, we will make every effort to ensure USA Fencing members understand the changes being made, the reasons for them and have appropriate opportunities for comment - that goes for decisions made operationally and at the Board level. We also encourage you to ask questions!”

A Priority on Succession Planning

Our 2022-23 Operating Plan puts an emphasis on succession planning both for our Board of Directors and for our CEO — including the need for emergency succession. 

Steps to address these concerns are already being prepared and will be presented at the February 2023 board meeting. 

Where will USA Fencing find this next great generation of leaders? We’re already creating a pipeline for future independent directors. Plus, the USA Fencing Leadership Academy gives members an opportunity to learn the ropes of the organization and gain insights on how to contribute to our governance structures.

More Support for the Nominating Committee

USA Fencing’s Nominating Committee serves a vital role in succession planning. In that vein, we’re currently seeking nominations for at-large members of the Board of Directors (deadline Dec. 21, 2022).  

The CEO and members of the Board are actively engaging with the committee to support their work. In addition, the committee is supported by two staff members: Athlete Safety and Compliance Manager Christina Pachuta is the committee’s staff liaison, while CEO Phil Andrews is a non-voting member of the committee. The Board of Directors, supported by USOPC supplier Boardspan, also has provided feedback to the Nominating Committee regarding gaps in the knowledge and talent on the Board of Directors.

A Review of Our Disciplinary Procedures

We’re currently reviewing the USA Fencing Disciplinary Procedures (as included in Appendix H of this Board Meeting document) and expect to vote on them at our February Board Meeting. While this process is close to final, we welcome any comments from our membership.

An Ongoing Commitment to Transparency

Longtime members of USA Fencing likely have noticed an uptick in both the volume of communication from the organization and the transparent tone of those articles, emails and social posts.

That’s intentional — and a direct result of our commitment to robust two-way communication. 

A Desire to Hear From You, the Membership

USA Fencing is investing significant efforts to listen to our membership. We are not a perfect organization and ultimately never will be, but with your help, we can best serve our members and help to spread this great sport further within the United States.

To share your perspective on the USOPC letter or anything else that’s on your mind, we invite you to use our suggestion box.

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