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Twitter Bot Scandal Just Another Chapter in Eugene Melnyk’s Unethical History

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The Ottawa Senators owner has taken multiple steps to put a damper on critical media.

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2005 National Hockey League Draft Photo By Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Eugene Melnyk is back in the news.

The owner and CEO of the Ottawa Senators has had a long and strenuous relationship with the fans since he bought the team in 2003. While his franchise saw success in the early years of the Melnyk era, culminating in a 2007 Stanley Cup Final appearance, the current state of the franchise is, as he put it, is “in the dumpster”.

While the context of that quote was in the middle of a cringy ‘interview’ discussing the team on the ice, it applies just as well to the team off the ice. A culmination of bad decisions has made the Senators the most laughable organization in the NHL, and a massive chunk of that falls on Melnyk.

A week ago, the Ottawa Citizen posted a video to their website, showing players from the Senators in an Uber trash-talking the team. It’s important to note that the Citizen was not the first to post it, nor did they pay to obtain the video, as it was originally posted by the Uber driver to his YouTube and Twitter accounts before later taking it down. The Citizen found the story was newsworthy, and they reported on it, as any newspaper, journal or website would.

The video was met with some backlash from a small group of people, with the Senators among them. The players and staff had already known about the video before it hit the masses, so in an effort to stick up for their players, the Senators asked the Citizen to remove the video. And once the Citizen declined, the Senators, and likely Melnyk, didn’t take it lightly.

First there was the removal of charter privileges. The Ottawa Senators are the only team in the NHL that still allows reporters to travel on charter planes with the players for away games (the newspapers still have to pay for flying costs like they would if they took a separate charter). Ken Warren, a sportswriter for PostMedia (the Citizen’s parent company), was denied access at the airport gate ahead of boarding the team’s flight to Florida. The ban extended to all of PostMedia’s sports writers, which makes up a large section of the team’s major media outlets. Only Sylvain St. Laurent of Le Droit still has his charter privileges.

On its own this could be looked at as the Senators being the last organization in the league finally scrapping an outdated practice, although the context matters. A similar situation arose with TSN’s Brent Wallace, who in December of last year was removed from the charter list after posing a question to Melnyk regarding allegations of withheld bonus money. Following the interview, off camera, Melnyk turned to Wallace and said, “I’m going to bury you”.

The message from Melnyk is clear: critical media will be punished.

At this point, one wonders why the Senators had gone this far. A story that would’ve normally died down after some apologies all of a sudden became much larger. Their attempt to make things quiet by removing the video only backfired, something that could’ve been seen a mile away.

But it doesn’t end there. Not even close.

In the days following the video being posted, a bunch of mysterious Twitter accounts began appearing. The first to be discovered went by the name of Aubrey Childress, an account created on November 3rd 2018. Of her nine tweets, seven of them were critical towards the Citizen, urging them to remove the video, while being vocal in support of Melnyk. Below are a couple excerpts:

Soon enough, more than a dozen accounts were found with similar tweets professing the same sentiment. All were created within the last month, with the earliest being traced back to the week of the Melnyk/Borowiecki video and Karlsson trade. Most have a young woman in the profile photo, all of which can be traced back as taken elsewhere from the internet. And they all use similar language — click any of these words for another example, there’s a lot of them.

Some of the accounts have since been deleted or disabled, although based on the sheer volume of content produced, it’s believed this would be the the type of ruse conducted by an outsourced business. The business then generates a bunch of fake accounts by having a computer quickly go through Twitter’s sign-up process, allowing the customer to anonymously spread whatever info they choose through social media.

While Melnyk’s involvement is still conjecture at this point, all signs would currently indicate that it would be his doing. Buying Twitter bots has become decreasingly expensive, although unless there’s someone else dedicated to framing Melnyk in whatever sense they may have intended, the bots fall closely in line with Melnyk’s attitude already shown towards the Citizen.

This also wouldn’t be Melnyk’s first time allegedly trying to cover up media through unethical tactics, as writer Travis Yost had his blog posts and Twitter account hacked in 2013, after he posted critical and revealing research on Melnyk’s financial situation. Again, none of this has been proven, although every piece of evidence we currently have would lead us to believe these were spearheaded by Melnyk.

The problem with the charter flights and the bots is that it undermines the critical principle of free press. His actions are sending a message to the media that critical initiatives will face consequences, even if they don’t contain any falsehoods. While sportswriting is far more trivial than something like politics, it is still important that writers are able to freely express their opinions based on facts, with no worries of suppression.

The unfortunate truth is that this type of behaviour has become predictable from Melnyk, who has a long history of taking unethical courses of action.

For those unfamiliar with Melnyk’s rise to riches, he founded Biovail in 1994, a pharmaceutical company which became best known for producing controlled-release drugs. The company reached its pinnacle in the early 2000s, reaching a value of $1.4 billion in 2001, making Melnyk a self-made billionaire.

It was also around then where legal concerns began to occur. The first major issue came about in 2003, when an article from the Wall Street Journal found that Biovail was paying doctors up to $1,000 to prescribe Biovail products. Melnyk fought back, accusing the WSJ of paying for quotes, although he ultimately settled in 2008 paying $24.6 million to the Department of Justice.

In 2006, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed allegations against Melnyk and other Biovail executives for fraud, after Melnyk failed to disclose numerous critical financial reports. Biovail settled the lawsuit with a payment of $138 million, and mounted enough pressure that Melnyk stepped down as chairman and left the company, while also settling with the SEC for $1 million. The continuing legal trail led Melnyk to pay another $565,000 penalty, plus banning him from being CEO of a publicly traded company for five years (2011 to 2016).

Having already purchased the Senators by the time these serious allegations arose, the red flags were there for what his control would lead to in the future.

Skip ahead a dozen years, and the Senators found themselves in two legal cases within the same year. The first one was targeted directly at Melnyk, with former chief marketing officer Peter O’Leary filing a $1.55 million lawsuit alleging abusive behaviour in the workplace, and withholding earned bonuses. Given the exceptionally frequent turnover of executives under Melnyk’s provision, this only supported what was already speculated in the public eye, that Melnyk was not a good person to work for. The case was quietly concluded this past summer, with no further details provided.

Then came the case with former assistant general manager Randy Lee, and the allegations of sexual assault against a 19-year-old shuttle driver. Instead of placing Lee on leave and conducting an investigation, the Senators backed him with a celebrity lawyer, allowing Lee to continue his work with young players leading up to the draft. It was an ethical fail on the part of the team, with public backlash reaching new levels towards Melnyk the Senators. While the legalities weren’t directed specifically towards Melnyk, it still spoke to his decision making process, avoiding any sort of ethical recommendation.

So where do we go from here? I bring all of this up to show you that the Senators’ problems run deep, and it begins at the top with the owner. The fans know this, as evidenced by the over $10,000 raised to the #MelnykOut campaign. The fans are passionate about seeing the franchise succeed, and frustrated that there’s nothing in sight that can be done.

Apathy has been settling in with the fanbase, and if Melnyk’s claims are true that he refuses to sell the team, then the apathy is justified. Everything — team mechanics, the LeBreton project, the on-ice product — it all comes into question when the person running the show is unethical, which is unfortunately the case with the Senators.