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Harassment claims and dwindling donations: The fall of Daniel Snyder’s nonprofit for Native Americans

Snyder pledged support for Native American tribes in 2014, amid swirling controversy over his team's name. The team has since been rebranded as the Washington Football Team. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

In November 2014, a young woman sent a letter to the Washington Football Team’s lone full-time human resources employee that accused one of team owner Daniel Snyder’s recent executive hires of sexual harassment.

“It has taken me a long time to find the courage to lodge this formal complaint … but I simply cannot take the treatment I have endured anymore,” read the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “It began the first day … and has remained pervasive throughout my employment with the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.”

Snyder had announced the creation of the foundation earlier that year, amid rising legal pressure and calls from lawmakers for the team to change its name. The group’s goal, Snyder claimed, was “making a real, lasting, positive impact” in Native American communities.

But this letter, written by a female employee, levied accusations against the man Snyder had selected just a few months before to serve as the foundation’s executive director: Gary Edwards, a former Secret Service agent and chief executive of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association.

Edwards touched her in “offensive and unwelcome” ways, the woman wrote. He also used inappropriate language, bought her expensive gifts and asked her questions about her private life that made her uncomfortable.

“Until these issues are fully investigated, I do not believe I am safe to return to the office,” the woman wrote.

A second former foundation employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the team and Snyder, told The Post she witnessed the incidents this woman alleged and was herself harassed by Edwards. This second woman described conduct ranging from unwanted hugs and playful tugs of the hair to demanding his female employees sit next to him at foundation meetings and remain silent.

Edwards declined interview requests sent both through the team and the National Native American Law Enforcement Association.

As The Post reported this summer, the Washington Football Team, under Snyder’s ownership, has for years been a place where some male executives have condoned — and, in many cases, participated in — routine unwanted overtures, inappropriate remarks about clothing and appearance, and the enforcement of policies that relegated women to second-class status, according to interviews with dozens of former employees.

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This alleged culture, currently the subject of an independent investigation overseen by the NFL, also pervaded this foundation, according to this second former employee and her former colleague’s letter. The women’s accusations and the team’s response have not previously been reported.

This letter represented one of the few times during Snyder’s tenure that a female employee attempted to address alleged sexual harassment through a formal complaint to team executives, according to interviews with dozens of former employees. At the time, many female former employees said, they believed it was best for their careers to quietly endure sexist treatment rather than make a complaint.

The way the team handled this complaint only reinforced the fear of speaking out, according to the other foundation employee who said she was harassed by Edwards. “I never would have trusted them to handle a complaint after seeing how they handled hers,” the woman said.

A brief investigation by the team concluded the claims in the woman’s letter were unfounded, according to the second foundation employee. The woman then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to records reviewed by The Post. After a mediation process, she received a settlement from the team, according to her former co-worker, and signed a nondisclosure agreement.

The woman declined to comment for this story, as did her attorney.

“I would love to talk. But legally both my client and I are barred from doing so,” wrote Jay Holland, a labor lawyer in Maryland, in an email. “Sorry I can’t do more.”

In response to revelations made in previous Post stories, the team has revamped its front office, including the hiring last month of a new head of human resources, as part of what team officials have called an effort to reform its workplace culture.

The team retired its former name and logo in July, after multiple corporate sponsors publicly called for change. By then, the foundation’s charitable giving had slowed to almost nothing, as other media outlets reported this summer, and the team let the foundation’s corporate existence lapse by failing to make scheduled filings with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

But in September, Washington vice president and controller Timothy Ennis filed documents with the commission applying for the foundation’s reinstatement, listing team headquarters in Ashburn as the foundation’s address. In a subsequent filing Oct. 21, the foundation listed Snyder and Edwards as the only corporate directors. On Oct. 23, the foundation changed its name to the Washington Football Team Original Americans Foundation.

On Oct. 29, The Post asked the team’s public relations representative for interviews with Snyder and Edwards regarding the 2014 harassment allegation and the team’s handling of it. The Post also requested the team release the woman who complained and her attorney from their nondisclosure agreements.

Two days later, in a statement to The Post, the team said it had decided it would no longer sponsor the foundation.

“We are focused on building a philanthropic strategy that has lasting impact on our communities which includes Native American communities,” the statement read. “We have also requested that the Original Americans Foundation remove any use of the Washington Football Team name, brand, or logo as it is not affiliated with the Washington Football Team at this time.”

Snyder declined the interview request, the team declined to release the woman and her attorney from their NDAs, and the team declined to answer any questions about its handling of the allegations against Edwards.

A generous start

Snyder announced the creation of the Original Americans Foundation in March 2014, in a public letter that described a recent tour he had taken of tribal reservations. During his visit, he wrote, he encountered Native Americans who supported the team’s former name but spoke of their communities’ high rates of poverty, substance abuse and joblessness.

“I’ve listened. I’ve learned. And frankly, it’s heart-wrenching,” Snyder wrote. “It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans. We must do more.”

To lead his new foundation, Snyder turned to Edwards, a former deputy assistant director of the Secret Service. Snyder had been introduced to Edwards by then-team president Bruce Allen. Allen and Edwards had mutual friends, and Edwards had developed deep connections in tribal communities across the country through his work with the National Native American Law Enforcement Association.

The day after Snyder unveiled the foundation, he introduced Edwards to other NFL team owners at the league’s annual March meetings in Orlando. In an interview with The Post outside the meetings, Edwards, who is from Tennessee, said he was a Cherokee who had always wanted to form an organization focused on helping Native Americans.

“What we’re going to do in this foundation is we’re going to be very agile, very mobile, to where we can look and help the tribal people who want to be helped and ask to be helped,” Edwards said.

Edwards touted charitable activities already underway, saying the foundation had donated 3,000 coats to several tribes and helped one Nebraska tribe buy a backhoe. He balked at the suggestion, made by Native American activists, that the foundation was an attempt by Snyder to buy support for the team’s former name.

“I find that to be insulting,” Edwards told a reporter. “I find it to be uninformed.”

The foundation originally was based out of office space in Tysons Corner. Shortly after he started, Edwards made three hires: two women and a man, all attorneys in their 20s.

The two women — the one who would later file a complaint and her friend — soon noticed that Edwards treated them differently than their male colleague, who still works for the team and did not respond to an interview request.

In her letter, the woman wrote of “disparate treatment compared to the male employees of the Foundation.” According to her former colleague, Edwards gave the male attorney more legal-focused assignments, such as working on contracts for the foundation, while asking the women to perform mostly secretarial work, such as arranging dinner reservations for work functions. At foundation meetings, this woman said, Edwards always asked the two women to flank him, sitting to his right and left, and on several occasions he told them beforehand to keep quiet and “let me do all the talking.”

Edwards routinely made remarks that made the women uncomfortable, this woman said, such as compliments on their clothing paired with suggestions that they should consider dating older men. “The best way to say it is Gary had old-school views of women in the workplace,” she said. “He treated us like eye candy.”

On foundation trips to meet with tribes across the country, Edwards bought both women expensive gifts. The woman who filed the complaint mentioned these gifts in her letter and returned them to the team at that time. The Post reviewed photos of some of these gifts, each of which still had price tags affixed: a $849 Coach suitcase, a $600 pair of cowboy boots and $549 silver earrings.

“I feel all gifts I have received are inappropriate and make me uncomfortable having them in my possession,” the woman wrote in her letter.

The letter was addressed to Amy Ryan, then the team’s human resources director, who did not reply to several voice mails seeking comment. Copies were also sent to Edwards and Eric Schaffer, then the team’s general counsel, who left the team this year and declined to comment.

The team opened an internal investigation. The woman’s friend said she met with team officials, including Ryan, Schaffer and Stephen Choi, the team’s chief financial officer who also oversaw human resources. Choi did not reply to voice messages seeking comment. Washington announced Tuesday that it had hired Greg Resh as its CFO; the team declined to confirm Choi’s departure.

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In this meeting, the woman’s friend said, she initially considered sharing her account of harassment by Edwards. But she grew uncomfortable because of the actions of an unexpected person in the room with them: Karl Schreiber, a top adviser of Snyder’s who occupies a nebulous role with the team.

On LinkedIn, Schreiber is listed as chief financial officer of Snyder Enterprises, an entity that manages Snyder’s personal business interests. While he has no official role with the franchise, Schreiber has had an office at team headquarters in Ashburn over the years, not far from Snyder’s, and is viewed by team employees as essentially Snyder’s chief of staff, according to several current and former employees.

According to the woman, as Schaffer and Ryan asked questions about her colleague’s allegations, Schreiber interrupted her answers and pushed back when she began to discuss what she viewed as inappropriate remarks made by Edwards.

“He was trying to defend Gary. It was very clear,” this woman said. “He was huffing and puffing and rolling his eyes.”

And while the team officials promised that whatever she said would remain confidential, this woman said she received a phone call from Edwards the day after her interview, thanking her for her support.

“He said, ‘Karl told me you stuck up for me at the meeting,’ ” this woman said. “And I thought, ‘Okay, great to know that wasn’t confidential at all.’ ”

Schreiber, reached by phone, declined to comment. Through A. Scott Bolden, an attorney for Snyder and managing partner of the Reed Smith law firm’s D.C. office, Schreiber released a statement: “I am aware of the Gary Edwards investigation, but categorically deny being in an interview with any witness or witnesses wherein I interrupted anyone or defended Mr. Edwards. Moreover, since it was in fact, a confidential investigation, I would not have any reason to take one side over the other or disclose to anyone what was discussed in these meetings, nor did I. I believed in the work of the Original Americans Foundation and wanted only the best for it and its employees and its leaders.”

A few days after that interview, team officials met with the woman who complained, she later told her friend, and told her that no one had corroborated her claims. She could return to work, or she could take a severance payment in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement.

EEOC records are confidential and exempt from open records laws; an EEOC spokesperson, citing these exemptions, declined to confirm the woman filed a complaint. The Post reviewed a copy of the initial complaint, which essentially summarized the woman’s letter to team officials about Edwards. After this woman filed her complaint, the team and her attorney entered into a mediation process that resulted in a settlement larger than the initial severance offer, as well as an NDA, according to her friend.

Dwindling impact

Outside the NFL owners’ meetings in 2014, after the Original Americans Foundation was launched, Edwards declined to commit to a specific amount of charitable giving to tribes each year, but he expressed hope the foundation would grow.

“As you can see, the way Dan Snyder is, he wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s wait until that day to get started to get busy doing stuff.’ We’ve hit the ground running,” Edwards said. “We’re hoping the amount will grow large so we can help more people. … We want to help as many as we can.”

The team donated $5 million to the foundation in its first year, tax records show, helping support $3.7 million in giving to Native American tribes. But the foundation’s first year served as a financial high-water mark, tax records show. In subsequent years, donations from the team plummeted. In turn, so did the foundation’s giving activity.

In 2016, records show, the team’s donation dropped to $1 million, and the foundation gave out $650,000 to tribes. In 2017, public pressure over the name issue subsided after a Supreme Court ruling invalidated a legal challenge to the team’s trademark rights. That same year, the team’s donation to the foundation dropped again, to $500,000, and the foundation’s giving fell to $300,000.

In 2018, the most recent year for which tax records are available, the team gave the foundation $520,000. Only $10,000 was donated to a tribe, with another $58,000 promised to another tribe for a future donation. The largest single expense for the foundation, records show, was Edwards’s $200,000 salary. The foundation never developed a revenue source outside the team’s donations over the years, and without the team’s support, it’s unclear how it will continue to exist.

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To C. Richard King, a Columbia College Chicago professor and an expert on Native American mascots, the plummeting financial activity only proves what he has always thought: The foundation was more of a public relations ploy than a well-intended effort to help needy tribal communities.

“[Snyder] didn’t do the right thing for Native people until he was forced to do so,” said Cook, referring to the team’s decision to change the name this year.

Boyd Gourneau is chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, one of the few communities that received donations from the foundation in multiple years. In a phone interview, Gourneau recalled when Snyder and Edwards visited in 2014.

“We told them, ‘If you guys can help us create a better quality of life here, that would be all right,’ ” Gourneau said. That first year, the foundation donated hundreds of winter coats to the tribe and helped arrange for a new playground to be built in its community.

Like many Native American reservations, the Lower Brule Sioux has been hit particularly hard by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Gourneau said. This year, he called Edwards to see whether the foundation could help pay for testing for his tribe.

“He said, ‘No, I don’t think we can help you,’ ” Gourneau recalled. “He didn’t really have an explanation why.”

Liz Clarke, Beth Reinhard and Sam Fortier contributed to this report.