The Washington Post interviewed eight people who said they were approached by private investigators, either at their homes or via phone calls, seeking information about Snyder’s former executive assistant, the team’s workplace or both.
The NFL recently told Snyder to curtail his use of private investigators, Debra Katz, attorney for former executive assistant Mary Ellen Blair, said in court Friday. Katz described the NFL’s directive to Snyder during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, where Snyder’s attorneys are trying to compel Blair and a Virginia real estate company to produce records they say will show a conspiracy to defame him. Blair and the company have denied the claims, but a judge Friday granted Snyder’s motion for discovery in the case.
“Our client has been approached by investigators, and the NFL has told Mr. Snyder to back off,” Katz said during the hearing. After the hearing, Katz declined to comment on whether the NFL had asked Snyder to “back off” only from Blair or in using the investigators altogether.
Katz’s comment drew an immediate rebuke by Snyder’s attorney, Joe Tacopina. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said at the hearing. In a statement to The Post, Tacopina denied the claim that the NFL told Snyder to “back off” and said that the private investigator activity relates to Snyder’s defamation suit against an India-based website, Media, Entertainment, Arts, WorldWide, not the NFL-backed probe into the team’s treatment of women being led by attorney Beth Wilkinson.
“Dan Snyder has specifically instructed his legal team not to interview any claimed victim of sexual harassment allegations,“ Tacopina said. “But he will continue his quest to uncover who was behind the despicable and false stories printed about him.”
Katz’s partner, Lisa J. Banks, said in a statement that she raised the issue of Snyder’s use of private investigators during a meeting with the NFL on Monday. “They recognize that this is a serious matter, and I have every confidence that they have or will take appropriate action in response,” Banks said.
Lisa Friel, the NFL’s senior vice president and special counsel for investigations, said in a statement: “The statements made in court today are the attorney’s words and characterization, not ours. Our message to everyone has been consistent — we want to ensure that Beth Wilkinson can complete her work thoroughly and without interference.”
On Monday, several hours after the meeting between the women’s attorneys and NFL officials, Snyder announced that the league had assumed oversight of the investigation of the team’s workplace. Snyder said the decision to have Wilkinson report directly to the league was his suggestion.
Also on Friday, Banks and Katz — who represent more than 20 former team employees, including several former cheerleaders — informed Snyder of plans to sue the team over the secret production of videos consisting of outtakes from cheerleader swimsuit calendar shoots in 2008 and 2010.
The Post interviewed one former employee who said former team senior vice president Larry Michael ordered the production of the 2008 video for Snyder and one who said Michael ordered the production of the 2010 video “for executive meeting.” Michael and Snyder denied the allegation and any knowledge of the videos.
In a letter to team officials, the attorneys ask that the team preserve any footage from the shoots, any communications related to the unofficial videos and any records of complaints or policies related to sexual harassment.
The roughly 10-minute videos, obtained by The Post, are set to classic rock and feature moments when some of the cheerleaders’ nipples were inadvertently exposed as they shifted positions or adjusted props shielding their breasts. In at least two instances, women’s pubic areas are only partly obscured by body paint.
The Post, which obtained the videos from a former employee, did not provide them to the attorneys, but they say they have obtained copies.
“We are currently investigating [the cheerleaders’] claims and intend to file a lawsuit on their behalf to seek redress for this sexually exploitative and abhorrent conduct,” a letter to Snyder reads.
The prospect of litigation from former employees increases the pressure on Snyder as his three co-owners seek to sell their shares of the team.
One former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said she was confronted by a private investigator the day after The Post requested comment from the team’s public relations firm about a workplace incident involving her.
The first knock on the door of her home came around 8 a.m., the former employee said. She ignored it, and when another knock came at 9, her roommate opened the door to a woman in a mask asking to speak to the former employee cited in The Post’s email to the team’s publicist.
“She opened with: ‘I’m wondering if I could speak to you about your former employer. ... I was hired by your former employer to ask some questions,” the former employee said. The private investigator then attempted to ask a question about the incident that The Post had described in its email to Snyder’s publicist. The former employee cut her off.
The investigator’s visit left her fearful and outraged, the former employee said, because just days before she had told Wilkinson that she would participate in the NFL-sanctioned probe of the team’s workplace culture only if she could be assured that Snyder wouldn’t retaliate. After the investigator left, she said, she immediately contacted Wilkinson, who expressed concern and said her firm had nothing to do with the visit.
“The fact that they did this behind [Wilkinson’s] back, that does not give me much confidence,” the former employee said.
Wilkinson declined to comment. Banks, the attorney for many former employees, said Wilkinson’s associate told her any private investigators contacting former employees were not hired by her firm.
Two other law firms have represented Snyder in recent weeks in the defamation case and in discussions with The Post: Reed Smith, a global firm with a D.C. office, and Tacopina, Seigel & DeOreo in New York City. A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of Reed Smith’s D.C. office, declined to comment on the contacts by private investigators.
Vinny Cerrato, a former vice president of football operations for the team, said he was called Aug. 21 by a man who identified himself as a private investigator representing a potential buyer in a stake of the Washington franchise. According to Cerrato, the man asked “basic background questions” about the organization and Snyder.
The other overtures by private investigators disclosed to The Post by former employees appear targeted at Blair, who worked for Snyder from 2013 to 2017.
Blair said she was visited by two men Aug. 3 while housesitting for someone who lived in Maryland. She said she was startled because she lives in Northern Virginia, yet the men approached her while she was dog-walking near the Maryland home.
According to Blair, one of the men asked: “Are you Mary Ellen Blair? … We’re investigating a lawsuit against the Redskins.”
The men would not identify the name of the law firm they said they represented, and they denied her assertion that they worked for Snyder, Blair said. She said they asked whether she knew Washington Football Team minority owner Dwight Schar. Schar’s daughter is an executive of a real estate company that Snyder has suggested in legal filings is part of the conspiracy to defame him.
Blair confirmed that she knew him, and the men then asked her whether she could call Schar if she wanted to. She said she told them she could but that it would “be odd” for her to do so.
“I felt intimidated and scared,” Blair said of the exchange, which she said ended with the men getting into a black Jeep with New York plates and driving away. “When I walked away, I realized I was shaking.”
Online records show the phone number that one of the men provided belongs to Michael Burdick, a former New York City police detective who works for CTS Research, a security firm. Burdick did not reply to messages seeking comment.
Six other former employees or friends of Blair’s also told The Post they have been contacted in recent weeks by private investigators, including her Pilates instructor, Sarah Mullen.
A woman who identified herself as a private investigator came to Mullen’s home in Reston on Aug. 28, she said.
Mullen said she was out of town and her husband answered the door. The woman asked to speak to Mullen but did not give her name or explain why she was there, Mullen said. “That was suspicious to me,” Mullen said.
The next morning, an old friend of Blair’s said she got a call from a man who described himself as a private investigator reviewing Blair’s application for a new job, which he called a “common protocol.”
The friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear the investigator would bother her again, said she and Blair don’t talk regularly and have mostly kept in touch over the years through social media. She said she told the private investigator that she and Blair hadn’t worked for the same company but had met each other through a joint work project years ago.
“He asked me if she was a good employee, and I said she was very responsible and it was a pleasure to work with her,” Blair’s friend said. “When I didn’t have any bad stuff to say about her, he got off the phone.”
The friend immediately texted Blair to ask whether she was looking for a new job. The answer was no.
“Then I felt bad that something fishy was going on,” the friend said.
The call to the cellphone of Blair’s friend came from a New York City phone number that is linked to Stangeby Security, headed by Erik Stangeby. A man who answered the phone number and was asked about the visit to Blair’s friend said: “I have no information about that. Thank you.”
Mark Maske contributed to this report.