Congress questions independence of NFL’s Washington probe

Feb 3, 2022, 5:56 PM | Updated: Feb 4, 2022, 8:28 pm
Melanie Coburn, former director of marketing, marketing coordinator and cheerleader for the Nationa...

Melanie Coburn, former director of marketing, marketing coordinator and cheerleader for the National Football League's Washington Football Team, testifies before the House Oversight Committee during a roundtable "Examining the Washington Football Team's Toxic Workplace Culture" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

(Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

An investigation into sexual harassment of women employed by Washington’s NFL franchise was not as independent as the team and the league claimed, members of Congress said Friday.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform released documents that showed the league and the team, now known as the Commanders, agreed to pursue a “joint legal strategy” related to the probe.

The private agreement was signed days after the league said it had taken over an investigation of the team initiated by owner Dan Snyder. It stipulated that any information exchanged as a result of the investigation was privileged and could not be shared without the consent of both the NFL and the team.

However, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement Friday that the league, and not the team, would determine what information from the investigation could be released.

The committee also found that the team and Snyder agreed that attorney Beth Wilkinson’s firm, which conducted the investigation, would produce a written report, but that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asked Wilkinson to present her findings to him orally instead.

The investigation found a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and mistreatment of female employees of the team, confirming reports that first emerged when former employees spoke to The Washington Post in 2020. The NFL fined the team $10 million and Snyder temporarily ceded day-to-day control of the franchise to his wife, Tanya.

The league claimed when issuing its punishment that none of those known to have mistreated women was still employed by the team, but former employee Tiffani Johnston contradicted that claim Thursday when she told Congress that Snyder sexually harassed her. Snyder denied Johnston’s allegations, calling them “outright lies.” The NFL said it would look into that new allegation.

In a statement released by the Commanders on Friday, Snyder’s attorney, Jordan Siev, appeared to question Johnston’s motives for speaking out, noting that she left the team “through a thankful and cheery resignation note more than 13 years ago” and that she did not cooperate with the Wilkinson investigation.

The committee called on Goodell in a letter sent Friday to release the full findings of the Wilkinson investigation by Feb. 14, threatening “alternate means of obtaining compliance” if he does not cooperate.

“The NFL must explain why a target of its investigation was given the ability to block the release of the investigation’s findings and why the NFL instructed Ms. Wilkinson to reverse course and not provide a written report,” the letter said. “Most importantly, the NFL must end its months-long efforts to hide the truth about misconduct at the (Washington Football Team) and cooperate with the committee’s investigation.”

The committee also said the league withdrew from its common-interest agreement with the team in October, creating a “legal limbo” that is preventing the release of documents requested by Congress.

McCarthy’s statement said the NFL has cooperated with Congress and will continue to do so.

“The committee has requested many documents which are clearly protected by the attorney-client privilege or are attorney work product,” McCarthy said. “The league, and not the team, has and will determine which information it is in a position to produce.”

In his statement, Siev said Snyder and the team have not blocked the committee from receiving any documents that are not protected by that same privilege.

Lawyers representing more than 40 former team employees said Goodell had deceived their clients.

“Goodell was anything but an honest broker when it came to this investigation,” attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz said in a statement. “He was an active co-conspirator with Dan Snyder and is now carrying his water in stonewalling Congress’ efforts to ensure accountability by making the results of the Wilkinson report public.”

Johnston and five other former employees of the newly renamed Commanders franchise spoke to the committee in a roundtable discussion on Thursday, detailing their experiences of being subjected to sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior by team executives. They said the team has not been held accountable for its toxic workplace culture.

The former employees and their attorneys also have questioned why the league allowed Snyder to buy out his ownership partners while the investigation was ongoing.

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Congress questions independence of NFL’s Washington probe