DC sues Commanders, Snyder, NFL over ‘deception’ regarding sexual harassment investigation

D.C.’s attorney general on Thursday announced that he has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the Washington Commanders, owner Dan Snyder, the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell, saying they had “repeatedly lied to and deceived” D.C. consumers about the investigation into sexual harassment of team workers.

At the heart of Karl Racine’s allegations is the charge that, after the NFL took over an investigation into the harassment and abuse allegations, they entered into “a secret agreement” with Snyder that actually hampered that probe, and that the team and the league did so to continue to “rake in profits” from D.C. fans.

Racine accused the team and the league of “colluding to deceive residents of the District of Columbia, about their investigation into a toxic workplace culture that impacted employees, especially women. All of that deception was done to protect their profits and their image.”

The attorney general added that D.C. residents “have a right to know the truth about the companies they support with their hard-earned dollars.”

When a 2020 report in The Washington Post detailed allegations of a toxic workplace, Snyder said he didn’t know about the allegations — a denial Racine called false — and the team hired lawyer Beth Wilkinson to investigate.

The NFL eventually took over the investigation. Racine said the NFL’s actions gave the impression “that they were stepping in to assume oversight” and that a full, independent investigation was going to be done.

Instead, Snyder, Racine said, interfered with the investigation, sending people to contact and intimidate witnesses. The complaint also cites witnesses who said they were offered money not to talk to Wilkinson and her team — including the woman to whom Snyder paid a $1.6 million settlement in 2009 over a sexual misconduct allegation.

Under the alleged agreement, the NFL “provided Snyder even greater access to witnesses and the investigative team,” Racine’s office said in a statement later, “further frustrating the effort to uncover the truth” — as well as the power to decide what information the public would see.

The league also gave Snyder “the keys to determine what could and what could not be shared with the public,” Racine said.

The NFL’s report hasn’t been released to the public. A seven-sentence press release was issued after the investigation was completed, announcing that Snyder was stepping away from day-to-day operations of the team. Prosecutors from Racine’s office said after the press conference that Snyder was consulted on the consequences.

Lawyers for Dan and Tanya Snyder said in a statement Thursday afternoon:

Over two years ago, Dan and Tanya Snyder acknowledged that an unacceptable workplace culture had existed within their organization for several years and they have apologized many times for allowing that to happen. We agree with AG Racine on one thing: the public needs to know the truth. Although the lawsuit repeats a lot of innuendo, half-truths and lies, we welcome this opportunity to defend the organization — for the first time — in a court of law and to establish, once and for all, what is fact and what is fiction.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the Wilkinson investigation “was thoroughly and comprehensively conducted,” referred to the press release as “a summary” and called the fine against the team and Snyder “record-setting.”

“We reject the legally unsound and factually baseless allegations made today by the D.C. attorney general against the NFL and Commissioner Goodell and will vigorously defend against those claims,” McCarthy said.

Former team worker Megan Imbert said after the press conference, “The law is on our side, and I’m just looking forward to what the future holds. This is the most significant day of the past two and a half years for me. … I really want to see Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell accountable for what I believe was a coverup.”

She added that she “completely reinvented myself in another industry; I left dreams on the table. … We’ve risked our lives, our reputations, to be a part of this and bring truth to light, so that workplaces everywhere people don’t have to go through what we went through.”

Former cheerleader Melanie Coburn said “I personally dealt with harassment, of course,” but that she was thinking about some of the other cheerleaders she managed.

“They’re still traumatized. They still message me. They have to leave restaurants when certain songs come on the speakers, and that’s not OK. … I stepped forward knowing that I would be a voice for them and wanting to really show the world what Dan Snyder was. … And people are gonna learn the truth.”

Consumer protection

Racine said he was suing under D.C.’s Consumer Protection Act, saying it covered all false statements by merchants who sell goods or services to residents of the District.

In a call after the press conference, lawyers for Racine’s office noted that Washington is in the team’s name and that the District flag is on the team’s uniform, and said the District is the core of the fan base.

The lawsuit seeks financial penalties “for every incident in which the Commanders, Snyder, the NFL, and Goodell lied to District residents dating back to July 2020,” Racine’s office said. It also will ask a court to order the release of the report.

Last week, Snyder engaged Bank of America to “explore transactions” that could include the selling of the team.

“If he sells the team, he’s still a defendant,” Racine said.

Racine has announced his retirement; on Tuesday, D.C. voters elected Brian Schwalb to succeed him.

“I expect that Brian, in the normal course, will meet and sit down with these lawyers,” Racine said, gesturing to the team of prosecutors gathered around him, “[and] that he will utilize his own team to evaluate what we’re doing. I’m quite confident that this case is going to continue to move forward.”

Lawyers Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, who represent more than 40 former team employees, said the civil complaint “is further evidence of what we’ve long known: that both the Commanders and the NFL have engaged in deception and lies designed to conceal the team’s decades of sexual harassment and abuse, which has impacted not only the victims of that abuse, but also consumers in the District of Columbia.”

“This is bigger than the NFL; this is a society issue, and the NFL is a microcosm of society,” said Imbert. “So, it’s surreal to know that we’re watching history and we’re also a part of it — it kind of feels like we’re in the middle of that tornado.”

WTOP’s John Domen contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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