The former lawyer for the Washington Football Team refused to be interviewed for the NFL’s probe into harassment at the organization, and he sued the league’s lead investigator in an attempt to force her to destroy documents related to a sexual misconduct allegation against owner Daniel Snyder, according to court documents made public Wednesday.
The disclosure of the documents, much of them heavily redacted, appeared to bring to an end a months-long legal battle between the team and Beth Wilkinson, the lawyer who led the NFL investigation. The legal fight — which was over the public disclosure of documents relating to a 2009 allegation against Snyder — appeared to end in a victory for the team: Several documents Wilkinson had attempted to file publicly last year were released Wednesday heavily, and in some cases entirely, redacted.
The documents were filed in federal court in Alexandria as part of a lawsuit filed — and then dismissed — in November by former team general counsel David Donovan in an effort to prevent Wilkinson from sharing information relating to the allegation by a former female employee of the team. Donovan oversaw the investigation of the allegation in 2009, according to court documents and people familiar with the matter, and the team paid the former employee $1.6 million as part of a confidential settlement agreement. The alleged incident occurred on Snyder’s private plane, The Washington Post reported last year.
Snyder has previously termed the woman’s allegations “meritless” and asserted the team only agreed to the seven-figure settlement at the urging of its insurance carrier. Lawyers for Snyder, the team, Wilkinson and Donovan did not reply to requests for comment Wednesday. Brendan Sullivan, the lawyer for the woman who made the allegations against Snyder, declined to comment.
After Donovan dismissed the case in November, court records show, Wilkinson attempted to publicly file several documents relating to her investigation. In December, the team’s lawyers intervened to prevent their release before the team could weigh in on how the documents would be redacted.
The Post also attempted to intervene in the case, to advocate for the public release of documents, but a judge denied the request. The team, Wilkinson and Donovan have been fighting over redactions throughout the year, and last week a judge ordered the remaining documents in the case to be filed publicly in redacted form. Despite requests from Wilkinson’s attorneys and The Post to limit redactions, large swaths of the documents were blacked out.
The team hired Wilkinson in July 2020 to investigate allegations raised in a Washington Post report of pervasive sexual harassment and mistreatment of female employees. None of the allegations raised in the initial Post report involved Snyder, although some former employees blamed him for what they viewed as an abusive workplace culture.
Just days after the team hired Wilkinson, she had a phone conversation with Donovan, according to a declaration he filed, in which it appears they discussed the 2009 allegation and his involvement overseeing the ensuing investigation.
“I told Ms. Wilkinson that I drafted the Report and conducted an investigation with outside counsel,” Donovan stated. According to his declaration, the firm Donovan hired to investigate was WilmerHale, where he worked as a partner before and after his tenure with the team.
Donovan next spoke with Wilkinson in October, when she contacted him for an interview as part of her investigation. Donovan declined, citing the confidentiality of the settlement agreement. A few weeks later, he sued Wilkinson, seeking an injunction that would have prevented her from sharing information relating to the 2009 allegations and ordered her to destroy any related documents in her possession.
In court filings, Donovan and his lawyers repeatedly expressed concerns that Wilkinson would write a report damaging to his reputation and that he would be prohibited from publicly defending himself because of confidentiality obligations.
In her responses, Wilkinson accused Donovan of interfering with her investigation and suggested he was acting on someone else’s behalf.
“He is improperly bringing this litigation as a proxy … obstructing the independent investigation designed to uncover the truth,” lawyers for Wilkinson wrote in November.
The redacted documents don’t indicate on whose behalf Wilkinson thought Donovan was acting with his lawsuit, but they suggest Donovan had the assistance of lawyers working for Snyder in his efforts. In his lawsuit against Wilkinson, Donovan attached the opinions of two legal experts. The experts were retained by A. Scott Bolden and Jordan Siev, lawyers at Reed Smith law firm who represent Snyder personally. Bolden and Siev did not reply to requests for comment Wednesday.
Donovan’s concerns about Wilkinson’s final investigative report were unrealized. In July, the NFL announced that it had fined the team $10 million for its “toxic” workplace culture but would release no detailed findings from her investigation.
In contrast to prior NFL investigations, the league directed Wilkinson only to provide her findings verbally, not in a written report. In a news conference in July, Lisa Friel, the league’s special counsel for investigations, declined to answer questions about any specific accusations, including the 2009 allegation made against Snyder.
Friel’s name surfaced in documents released Wednesday. She submitted a 22-page declaration, in support of Wilkinson, in November. In it, Friel described her professional background as a former sex crimes investigator and prosecutor, and she affirmed that Wilkinson had the authority to do a “full, unbiased investigation.” Much of the rest of Friel’s declaration, including several entire pages, was redacted.