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A life destroyed: crowdfunding campaign to help Swiss whistleblower

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A life destroyed: crowdfunding campaign to help Swiss whistleblower
Natanael Wildermuth (left) with Adam Quadroni. Photo supplied
20:36 CEST+02:00
It sounds like something out of a Scandinavian noir: a man is in the Swiss Alps on a perfect early summer afternoon preparing his mountain hut for a weekend with his three daughters when suddenly a police commando unit pull up.

The officers are in full combat gear including bullet-proof vests and their weapons are drawn.

The man is dragged out of the hut. His wrists are bound with cable ties and he is blindfolded. He is then thrown into the back of van and driven to a psychiatric clinic where he is involuntarily admitted.

He spends the next three days there with no information about why he has been confined before eventually being released. It is only much later he learns he is suspected of being suicidal, something doctors at the clinic cannot verify.

The above events allegedly happened to Swiss builder Adam Quadroni in June 2017. But there is one key fact missing from the account above: Quadroni is a whistleblower who helped uncover a massive price-fixing ring run by building companies in the south-eastern Swiss canton of Graubünden.

The resulting investigation was the largest of its kind in the history of Swiss competition watchdog Weko.

Seven firms were recently fined around 7.5 million francs for price-fixing but investigations are still ongoing and the final impact could be much greater. The possible involvement or tacit knowledge of regional politicians and officials and of the cantonal master builders’ federation are still matters for clarification.

But for Quadroni, his arrest in 2017 was the culmination of several very difficult years. After blowing the whistle on the practices of the building cartel, he lost everything: first his business and reputation as competitors banded against him, and then even his wife and three daughters.

Crowdfunding campaign

When Swiss timber construction engineering student Natanael Wildermuth read Quadroni’s story in a recent four-part investigation published by Swiss news site Republik, he knew he had to act.

“I was very disturbed by the article," Wildermuth told The Local on Saturday, speaking about an in-depth reportage that poses more questions than it answers as it examines the murky events surrounding the price-fixing scheme in Graubünden.

While Quadroni's account of events is given plenty of coverage in the piece, most of the other participants in the drama – a list that includes judges, police, politicians and doctors – simply denied events or refused to go on the record.

"I believe in justice and I think we need official answers about what happened,” Wildermuth said.

He has now set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise 100,000 francs to help the builder get his life back on track.

“I especially want to help Quadroni, to get his daughters back,” the student said, explaining the money will also be used to help fund the whistleblower’s legal costs during his custody battle over his children.

The campaign has been a runaway success raising over 50,000 francs in 48 hours. “It has been a very special experience. It has gone off without a hitch,” Wildermuth told The Local.

The student, who has met Quadroni twice, describing him as “very normal”, “nice”, and “easy to talk to”, said he was in regular contact with the builder.

“He is very touched by the solidarity that people have shown,” said Wildermuth of the project which has the backing of former president of the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland Giusep Nay who is providing free legal advice and administering the money received.

How the cartel operated

Members of the Graubünden building cartel colluded to set prices for building projects, agreeing in advance how much they would bid and who would win lucrative contracts.

A long-term member of the cartel, Quadroni decided in 2006 he wanted nothing more to do with it.

Initially the move was successful as he was able to make lower bids once he was operating outside of the constraints of the price-fixing ring. But Quadroni’s business began to suffer. He had problems with suppliers while potential customers were warned off.

In 2009, an approach to local authorities about cartel activities was snubbed, at least according to Quadroni’s version of events, and it wasn’t until Weko jumped on the case in 2012 that investigations began.

In 2013 Quadroni declared bankruptcy. According to Republik, he was harassed by cantonal police while his marriage began to suffer as money problems took centre stage.

The dramatic arrest

The exact nature of events leading up to the dramatic 2017 arrest are not clear, but it came days after his wife contacted police in the wake of a bitter argument she had with Quadroni over jewellery.

Quadroni says his wife attacked him and that he did not injure her. His wife has provided two slightly differing versions of events, but in both versions the builder acted with violence.

Adam Quadroni (left) with Natanael Wildermuth in 2018. Photo supplied.

Several days after that incident, Quadroni’s wife contacted police. She had learned he wanted to go up to their mountain hut with just his daughters and hadn’t informed her. The woman said this was suspicious as he never did anything with the girls alone.

This call to the police – along with a district judge's previously recorded but medically unverified concerns about Quadroni's allegedly suicidal state of mind – was enough to launch the arrest operation.

A restraining order

Quadroni only later learned he had been admitted into psychiatric care because of indications he was “acutely suicidal” and that he might carry out “domestic violence”.

In an official assessment made after his stay in hospital, doctors said they could see no evidence of this and that he had been released in a “psychologically stable condition”.

But when Quadroni was released, his wife had left with the children. A regional court initially imposed a restraining order which prohibited him from getting closer than 100 metres to his family. He is now permitted a supervised visit with his children once a fortnight but continues to fight for the right to regular, unsupervised, visits.

On Sunday, Swiss media reported that the Graubünden cantonal justice minister Christian Rathgeb had filed a criminal complaint against unknown persons in relation to the arrest of Quadroni in 2017 in a bid to ascertain if police acted illegally.

The issue is politically sensitive because it touches on the responsibilities of cantonal government hopeful and current Graubünden police commissioner Walter Schlegel while Rathgeb is campaigning for another term in office, Swiss daily NZZ reported.

Public prosecutors said they were now examining evidence as they looked at possible criminal charges stemming from the activities of the building cartel.

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