The former Matildas great at the centre of explosive allegations about harassment and bullying in Australian women’s football was embroiled in a five-year dispute with a former Melbourne City teammate, Tyla-Jay Vlajnic, who made formal complaints that Lisa De Vanna had “intimidated” and “threatened” her.
De Vanna, who denied all wrongdoing, did not participate in Football Australia’s investigation into the allegations, citing a lack of procedural fairness, lengthy delays and a lack of transparency from the governing body. She was never interviewed and was said to have been left “distressed” by the probe dragging on for three years.
The dispute, which began in 2016, preceded De Vanna going public with allegations about a toxic culture in football last month, which subsequently sparked a Sports Integrity Australia investigation.
In documents seen by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Vlajnic made formal complaints about De Vanna’s behaviour to Football Australia in 2018. Vlajnic alleged she had suffered more than three years of bullying and harassment by De Vanna, beginning in early 2016. Vlajnic also took out an Apprehended Violence Order against De Vanna in 2019.
De Vanna denied all of Vlajnic’s allegations and the merit of the AVO, which was later withdrawn.
According to findings from an investigation conducted by Football Australia’s independent Core Integrity Unit – released in April this year and obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – De Vanna was alleged to have threatened, intimidated and harassed Vlajnic between 2016 and 2019.
In a letter to De Vanna on April 15, the FA’s head of Legal, Integrity and Business Affairs, Tim Holden, said that based on available evidence – namely information from Vljanic, third-party witnesses and text messages – the investigator had found five allegations “to be supported”.
Those findings included that De Vanna, in November 2016, “sent an inappropriate and threatening text message to the Complainant in which you stated that you would go to the Complainant’s grandparents’ house and wait for the Complainant outside her grandparents’ house”.
The investigator also found that De Vanna had repeatedly “verbally abused, harassed and/or ridiculed” Vljanic during a 2017 NPLW match between Bulleen and South Melbourne, and that after a 2018 NPLW match, De Vanna “approached the Complainant and made physical contact with her and/or pressed her up against a wall.”
The investigator also upheld Vlanjic’s complaint that De Vanna “acted aggressively” towards her after a 2018 NPLW game, and that all of those actions made Vlajnic “feel intimidated and/or harassed and/or distressed and/or threatened”.
The letter from Holden said the investigator determined “the above conduct constitutes repeated, unreasonable behaviour towards the Complainant that has created a risk to the Complainant’s health and safety.”
Vlajnic’s complaints were first lodged to Football Australia in 2018, but it took the former administration more than eight months to commence an investigation through its Core Integrity Unit, which operates independently of the board and chief executive.
The process was strongly criticised by the footballer’s adviser, Rose Garofano, who slammed the delays in the investigation in a series of emails with FA boss James Johnson in 2020.
Responding to an email from Garofano in November 2020 requesting the matter be resolved, Johnson said the “significant delay” may be “due in part to Lisa being unwilling to participate in the investigation process, as communicated to FFA by her lawyer”.
Garofano responded by saying De Vanna had always been willing to co-operate with the investigation and defend herself against Vlajnic’s allegations, but along with being occupied by playing at the 2019 World Cup, she and her lawyer were never provided with the “relevant documentation” they had repeatedly requested, to review and respond to.
“Firstly the ‘significant delays’ have not been in due part to Lisa being unwilling to participate,” Garofano wrote.
“Rather, through her lawyer, they have requested numerous times since the start of this situation to have the relevant information, as per the MPP (Member Protection Policy), provided to her so that she could make a proper response. In fact, this request has been in every email response back to Tim Holden & never provided.”
Garofano wrote that Holden had informed her in August 2020 it wasn’t appropriate to share all information pertaining to Vlajnic’s allegations, and that if De Vanna did not provide a response, he would instruct the Core Integrity Unit “to complete its investigation on the basis of the material before it and absent any further evidence your client may have been able to provide.”
In an earlier email, Garofano slammed the FA’s handling of the investigation.
“What is happening to Lisa De Vanna is inhumane and unfair. Lisa has represented her country at a National level for over 16 years. I am not prepared to sit and watch her become any further emotionally distressed by a lack of action by the FFA,” Garofano wrote.
“If you do not make a decision on this matter asap – I will have to seek other ways to bring to light what I can only describe as organisational incompetence and shed light on some of the unnecessary harassment Lisa has felt over the past 20 months.”
Referencing the AVO taken out by Vlajnic in July 2019, Garofano wrote to Johnson that De Vanna “was about to play overseas in Italy when this AVO was initiated – and had not been in the physical vicinity of the complainant for over 9 months”.
Garofano said the AVO was subsequently removed after it was successfully challenged in court, after De Vanna had relocated to Italy.
The letter from Holden to De Vanna on April 15 said that while the FA deemed the investigator’s findings to be concerning and that disciplinary action could be warranted, the governing body would instead offer a “no admission” resolution via mediation, an agreement from De Vanna that she would not make any contact with Vlajnic and complete an online harassment and discrimination course. Football Australia encouraged Vlajnic “to undertake similar steps.”
Sources with knowledge of the situation said that the pursuit of mediation, instead of a breach notice, was in part an acknowledgement by Football Australia that the investigation had taken too long to get started and had dragged on for too long.
De Vanna did not respond to calls from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and Garofano declined to comment when contacted.
Vlajnic provided a short statement on Monday.
“It has taken some time and a lot of hard work to get past this difficult time. I never wished for it to become public, nor do I wish to revisit the chapter I had closed,” she said. “Therefore, I will take no part and make no further comment on the matter.”
In a statement, a Football Australia spokesman said: “Football Australia does not comment on the details of any specific investigations it conducts, including in relation to member protection complaints. These processes are undertaken confidentially in accordance with FA’s regulations and policies and FA respects that confidentiality.
“The duration of any investigation depends on a range of factors including the complexity of the matter, the evidence available, and the willingness of relevant parties to participate in the process. It’s important that investigations follow a proper process that is thorough and fair to all involved.”
Vlajnic will line up for Melbourne City in the upcoming W-League season.
(By Dominic Bossi, Stuff, 02.11.2021)