The Washington Post

Daniel Snyder pledged support for the NFL’s investigation. His actions tell a different story.

Washington’s owner took former employees to court, deployed private investigators and was accused of trying to ‘silence’ a key accuser

Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
25 min

In July 2020, just a few days after prominent D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson began investigating allegations of widespread sexual harassment in the Washington Football Team workplace, she learned of a decade-old allegation of sexual misconduct against team owner Daniel Snyder.

Snyder had for years privately denied the woman’s claims. But the existence of an allegation against him, which had been kept secret by a confidential $1.6 million settlement, had the potential to rock a franchise already reeling from scandal. A few weeks later, Wilkinson sought to interview the former team employee who had made the accusation, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Then Snyder and his team stepped in.

Despite the owner’s public pledge to cooperate “with all aspects of the investigation,” his attorneys attempted to prevent Wilkinson from speaking to Snyder’s accuser, according to a letter the woman’s attorney wrote to Snyder’s lawyers that was filed in federal court.

The Washington Post has not reviewed this letter, which was filed under seal as part of a legal dispute between Wilkinson and a former lawyer for the team. The letter was described by people with knowledge of its contents.

According to these people, the woman’s lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, accused Snyder’s lawyers of offering his client more money beyond the $1.6 million the team paid in 2009, if she agreed not to speak to anyone about her allegations against Snyder and her settlement with the team. In court filings, Wilkinson later described phone calls to Sullivan from Snyder’s lawyers as an attempt to “silence” the 2009 accuser. Wilkinson and Sullivan declined to comment.

Snyder’s attorneys, in their own sealed letter filed in court, denied trying to block the interview and offering the woman more money, according to people familiar with that letter.

In a statement released after this story published online, A. Scott Bolden of the law firm Reed Smith, which represents Snyder and the team, said, “Untrue. It did not happen. Absolutely no effort was made by me or any Reed Smith lawyers to dissuade anyone from speaking with Beth Wilkinson or otherwise cooperating with her investigation, nor was any money offered to anyone not to cooperate. Anyone suggesting something to the contrary is lying.”

Snyder declined an interview request. Lawyers representing Snyder and the team declined interview requests.

Daniel Snyder pushed back as the NFL probed. Here are takeaways from The Post’s reporting.

The alleged effort to block the interview is one of several instances in which lawyers and private investigators working on Snyder’s behalf took steps that potential witnesses for Wilkinson viewed as attempts to interfere with the NFL’s investigation, according to a review of hundreds of pages of court records and interviews with more than 30 people, including current and former team and league officials.

While Snyder publicly expressed shock over allegations raised in The Post story that prompted Wilkinson’s investigation, his lawyers filed petitions in federal court seeking, in part, to identify former employees who had spoken to The Post — an effort one federal judge suggested was intended “to burden and harass” former employees who had spoken to reporters.

Private investigators working on Snyder’s behalf, meanwhile, showed up uninvited at the homes of several former employees or contacted their friends and relatives, according to these former employees or their attorneys — acts many of them viewed as intimidation aimed at discouraging former employees from participating in the NFL’s investigation.

And after Snyder’s lawyers learned that the 2009 accuser still intended to speak to Wilkinson — despite what her attorney alleged was an effort to prevent her from speaking to the NFL’s investigator — they provided support for a lawsuit filed against Wilkinson by the team’s retired former general counsel, court records show. That lawsuit sought to bar Wilkinson from discussing the 2009 allegation against Snyder with NFL officials, and to force her to destroy documents relating to the woman’s allegations.

Wilkinson ultimately did interview Snyder’s accuser, according to court records. But the revelation that Snyder was accused of trying to block a witness from participating in the NFL’s investigation raises new concerns about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to keep confidential any report or investigative findings produced by Wilkinson — a departure from how the league has handled investigations in recent years.

Previous NFL probes — into the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the “Deflategate” controversy — resulted in detailed, public reports. A league-sponsored investigation of Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, which substantiated allegations that he had harassed women on the team’s staff and used a racial slur, resulted in the release of executive findings.

Goodell’s secretive handling of the Washington investigation, which has spared Snyder from any public punishment, has drawn recent interest from members of Congress, thanks to a series of leaked emails that prompted the resignation of Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden and tarnished the reputations of others. The leaks of certain emails produced as part of Wilkinson’s investigation — months after the probe ended — has fueled speculation over their source, with the NFL and Snyder denying any role.

But among former team employees, it has not escaped notice that the emails spared Snyder any embarrassment while damaging the reputation of one of his perceived enemies: Bruce Allen, the longtime team president Snyder fired in 2019.

Allen declined to comment. The NFL also declined to comment or to answer any questions about the investigation and its handling of the emails that were leaked.

As all of this plays out, Snyder — once faced with a crisis that some speculated could cost him team ownership — appears to have emerged with an even stronger hold on the team. But victory for Snyder came at a cost for the NFL’s image, at least in the eyes of many of the women who came forward to participate in its investigation.

“It’s very sad and disheartening that [the NFL is] not willing to do the right thing,” said Rachel Engleson, a former team marketing director.

Engleson agreed to speak to Wilkinson’s team, she said, because she believed the NFL would handle the investigation as transparently as previous league probes. Instead, she came away with a different perception of the league’s handling of investigations — when the allegations involve an owner.

“Here’s this billionaire owner,” she said of Snyder, “who can do anything he wants.”

The allegation against Snyder dates back to 2009. Its existence remained a secret for most of the past decade, until The Post reported on it and the confidential settlement last December. Even then, the details were scarce: a private plane ride, an allegation, a denial, an investigation, a payout.

In April 2009, The Post reported, a female employee accused Snyder of an act of sexual misconduct on his private plane. The woman had joined Snyder and several others for a business trip to Las Vegas that included attending the Academy of Country Music Awards, staged by Snyder-owned Dick Clark Productions, according to people familiar with the woman’s claims. The alleged act occurred on the return flight to D.C.

The woman reported her allegations to David Donovan, then the team’s general counsel. Donovan oversaw an investigation that exonerated Snyder and accused the woman of fabricating her allegations, according to people familiar with the matter.

The woman retained Sullivan, a respected white-collar criminal defense attorney, and threatened to sue, according to settlement documents reviewed by The Post. The sides eventually negotiated a $1.6 million confidential settlement signed in July 2009. After The Post reported on the settlement last December, Snyder described the woman’s allegations as “meritless” in a court filing, and claimed an unidentified insurance carrier decided to settle the claim.

Wilkinson learned about the settlement in late July 2020, according to a court filing by the team’s former lawyer, within days of a Post story detailing allegations of sexual harassment inside the Washington franchise.

The team announced it had hired Wilkinson to investigate the day the story was published. Two days later, Wilkinson was on a conference call with Donovan, he said in a court filing. Also on the call was Norman Chirite, another longtime legal adviser to Snyder, as well as an unidentified third person.

What happened next, which has not been previously reported, is described in court records that emerged during a legal dispute between Wilkinson and Donovan. Large swaths of those records are redacted, but multiple people familiar with them confirmed some of what is shrouded.

After the phone call, according to a declaration filed by Donovan and people familiar with the matter, Chirite gave Wilkinson documents relating to the allegation and the settlement, including a report Donovan wrote after his investigation.

The next month, The Post published a second story about the team’s workplace, including allegations of sexual harassment from 25 more former employees, with two accusations involving Snyder.

A former cheerleader accused Snyder of humiliating her by suggestively asking her to join his friend in a hotel room at a charity event in 2004. Snyder denied her claim. And a former video producer said he witnessed the production of a video in 2008, which he was told was being made for Snyder, culled from outtakes of a recent cheerleader calendar shoot that included moments of nudity. The Post separately obtained the video, as well as a similar video from 2010. Snyder denied having any knowledge of the videos or involvement in their production.

A few days after that story published, the NFL assumed oversight of the investigation, and the team said it had released all former employees from nondisclosure agreements so they could speak with Wilkinson.

But then lawyers working for Snyder learned Wilkinson was attempting to interview the 2009 accuser. That October, Wilkinson received a letter from A. Scott Bolden, a partner in the D.C. office of Reed Smith, a firm that represents Snyder and the team. This letter appears in court records, but its contents are almost entirely redacted. According to people with knowledge of the letter, Bolden claimed to Wilkinson that the team’s release of former employees from NDAs did not apply to the 2009 accuser. Bolden and Reed Smith declined to comment on the record about this letter.

Around the same time, three lawyers from Reed Smith made calls to Sullivan, the lawyer for the 2009 accuser, Sullivan said in his letter. He also told Wilkinson about the phone calls, according to a court filing by Wilkinson, who described the calls as an effort to secure “silence” and “noncooperation” from Snyder’s accuser.

Sullivan claimed that during these calls, Snyder’s lawyers urged the woman to honor the confidentiality terms of her settlement and refuse to speak to anyone making new inquiries about her 2009 allegations and the settlement, according to people familiar with Sullivan’s letter. If the woman agreed, Snyder’s lawyers said they were prepared to offer her more money, these people said Sullivan wrote.

Snyder’s lawyers responded in writing to Sullivan, denying his claim that they’d offered her more money, according to people familiar with their response.

Sullivan “rebuffed” these efforts, Wilkinson said in a court filing. A few weeks after Sullivan’s last communication with Snyder’s lawyers, Wilkinson learned she was being sued for investigating the 2009 allegation against Snyder — not by Snyder but by Donovan, the former general counsel, who had left the team in 2011 and retired from law in 2019.

Washington Football Team settled sexual misconduct claim against Daniel Snyder for $1.6 million

In the lawsuit, Donovan asked a federal judge to bar Wilkinson from discussing the allegation against Snyder and the team’s handling of the matter in 2009 with anyone — including NFL officials. Donovan claimed in court he was filing the suit to defend his reputation. He speculated that Wilkinson would write a report — which the NFL would publicly release — criticizing him and his investigation in 2009.

Wilkinson expressed skepticism that Donovan was acting on his own. In court filings, she accused him of pursuing the lawsuit on behalf of someone else, “obstructing the independent investigation designed to uncover the truth.”

Court records suggest collaboration between Donovan and Snyder’s lawyers. In his court filings, Donovan included the written opinions of two legal ethics experts who had been hired not by Donovan’s attorneys but by lawyers for Snyder and the team at Reed Smith. Two other lawyers who represented Snyder also wrote declarations Donovan filed as supporting evidence for his lawsuit.

Sullivan, the lawyer for the 2009 accuser, wrote a declaration that Wilkinson filed in her defense, along with his letter recounting his conversations with Snyder’s attorneys. It’s unclear what, if any, steps the NFL took to support Wilkinson’s efforts. The league’s senior vice president of investigations, Lisa Friel, also provided a declaration Wilkinson filed as part of her defense, but it is heavily redacted. Friel declined to comment.

The lawsuit existed for just two weeks. Donovan withdrew it after Wilkinson disclosed she had already spoken to NFL officials about the 2009 allegations and after a judge refused his request to seal the entire case from public view. But for the next 11 months, his lawyers, lawyers for Wilkinson and lawyers for the team fought in court over which documents from the case would become public. The Post also attempted to intervene, to advocate for the public release of documents, but a judge denied the request.

The heavily redacted documents that were finally made public this fall revealed hostility between Wilkinson and the team. At a hearing in January, according to a memo written by Wilkinson’s lawyers, the team’s lawyers accused her of “violat[ing] the professional rules of conduct,” “turning against [her] client” and acting out of “spite.”

Donovan, in his court filings, expressed that it was a “near certainty” the NFL would publicly release Wilkinson’s report, which he predicted would “disparage” his investigation that exonerated Snyder in 2009.

“Not only does the NFL routinely publish these reports, it often publicly praises and effectively legitimizes them,” wrote Donovan’s lawyers, who predicted Wilkinson’s report was “likely to reverberate through the Internet.”

In mid-July 2020, amid rampant social media speculation about the contents of the forthcoming Post story, an obscure news site based in India — Media Entertainment Arts Worldwide, or — published two salacious and false stories linking Snyder to Jeffrey Epstein.

A few weeks later, Snyder launched what would become a year-long campaign — involving international and U.S. courts as well as private investigators branching out across the country — that his lawyers claimed was focused solely on uncovering whoever was behind the Epstein stories.

But interviews and previously unreported court records demonstrate that Snyder wasn’t just interested in identifying the sources of the Epstein stories.

In early August 2020, Snyder filed a defamation suit in India against the company that owns, accusing it of taking money from unnamed co-conspirators to publish the false stories. Representatives of denied accepting money but acknowledged the stories were not factual and took them down.

But for Snyder, the lawsuit in India held strategic value that went beyond holding MEAWW accountable. It enabled him, via a relatively obscure legal provision, to go to U.S. federal courts to demand emails, texts, phone records and other communications from anyone he could reasonably claim might have helped plant the Epstein stories. And in the process, he could learn who else those people were talking to — and, in some cases, what they were saying.

Each time a judge forced someone to turn over records, Snyder’s list of suspects grew. Then his lawyers went to court again, eventually filing claims against ten people or companies in seven states from August 2020 through April 2021.

One of Snyder’s first targets was his former executive assistant, Mary Ellen Blair, who was approached by private investigators in August, her attorney at the time later said in court. Not long after, Blair received notice that Snyder intended to subpoena her phone records, text messages and emails. Blair declined to comment.

Joe Tacopina, a lawyer for Snyder, said in media interviews that he had evidence that Blair was a key figure in a global conspiracy to defame Snyder through online stories tying him to Epstein.

“It is crazy. And honestly, you know, if we hadn’t investigated it as thoroughly as we had, it’d be hard for me to believe,” Tacopina said in August 2020, on the Washington Football Talk podcast. “We wouldn’t be making these filings if we weren’t rock solid in our proof.”

The subpoena produced no evidence that Blair was part of such a conspiracy, court records show. But it produced phone records that showed Blair was in communication with reporters and with Dwight Schar, one of three team co-owners who feuded with Snyder last year over their efforts to sell their stake in the franchise. Snyder later used these records, in a legal dispute with the co-owners, to accuse Schar of attempting to extort him, by threatening to leak information about the 2009 settlement to reporters unless Snyder agreed to sell the team.

Blair was one of five former employees who said they were contacted by private investigators between August 2020 and May 2021, according to these people or their attorneys. Two of the employees spoke with The Post only on condition of anonymity, and the remaining two were cheerleaders who had previously spoken to The Post and Wilkinson’s team but are barred from speaking further due to confidential settlements they signed with the team, according to their attorney, Lisa Banks.

Some of the private investigators disclosed their identities to the people they approached and said they were working with a law firm hired by the team; others refused to or provided false narratives, according to former employees. A sixth former employee — Brad Baker, a former producer in the team’s broadcast department who went public about the lewd cheerleader videos — said that private investigators contacted his ex-wife and several former co-workers in the weeks after The Post story published.

“It’s very alarming when people you haven’t talked to in years tell you that somebody is snooping around about you,” Baker said.

The visits from investigators, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, unsettled several former team employees. And some said they felt the combination of private investigator visits and subpoenas had a chilling effect on former colleagues who declined to speak with Wilkinson or reporters.

“It was an intimidation tactic,” said Megan Imbert, another former producer in the team’s broadcast department. “I know there are people who didn’t talk to Beth Wilkinson, who have told me they would talk … but only if subpoenaed under a court of law. That’s how petrified they are of Dan Snyder.”

Snyder’s efforts to identify sources of Post journalism continued for months. In November 2020, his lawyers sought records from another former executive assistant of Snyder’s, Shawn Ferguson, demanding “all communications” with “employees or agents of the Washington Post.”

And in March, Snyder’s lawyers demanded in federal court in Colorado that Jessica McCloughan, wife of former general manager Scot McCloughan, also turn over records documenting communications with The Post. The judge dismissed the request, which he termed a “fishing expedition.”

“The link between Mrs. McCloughan and the defamatory Indian publications is tenuous at best,” U.S. Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter wrote: “Efforts to learn whether Mrs. McCloughan communicated with The Washington Post are improper, unnecessarily invasive, and being done for what the Court perceives is an improper purpose — to discover the sources for the embarrassing and damning … Post story.”

For months after the second Post story in August 2020, Snyder publicly denied the authenticity of the two lewd cheerleader videos. At some point late last year or early this year, the team reached confidential settlements with several cheerleaders who appeared in the videos.

In February of this year, lawyers working for Snyder and the team offered financial settlements to other former female employees who had gone public with accounts of harassment, provided they agree to stop speaking to journalists and on social media about their time working for the team.

Though the offers came after they spoke to Wilkinson, two of the women later said they perceived it as an effort to secure their silence ahead of the release of the findings of Wilkinson’s investigation and to minimize any public fallout. They both declined the offers.

In March, NFL owners cleared the way for Snyder to buy out his minority partners for $875 million, taking complete control of the team, by approving his request for a waiver to the league’s debt limit requirements so he could borrow $450 million. The move by the league’s owners, approved while Wilkinson’s investigation was still ongoing, drew criticism from advocates for victims of sexual harassment.

On July 1, the NFL announced the outcome of the Wilkinson investigation. Though the league issued no report and offered no findings, it said it would fine the team $10 million and that Tanya Snyder, as the team’s new co-CEO, would oversee day-to-day operations for “at least the next several months.”

NFL officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said Daniel Snyder would need Goodell’s permission to return to leading the team alongside his wife. Damage control from the Snyder camp came swiftly.

“Any suggestion that Commissioner Goodell must approve Dan Snyder’s return to daily control is false. Dan was not suspended, so by definition he does not need to be reinstated to any position,” Snyder attorney Jordan Siev told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The NFL has never publicly rebutted Siev’s claim.

At the same time, Snyder’s quest to uncover the sources of damaging stories about him had dwindled mostly to one target: Allen, the team’s former president.

Snyder’s grievances with Allen ranged from conspiratorial to petty, according to court records and legal communications reviewed by The Post. Snyder suggested in court filings that Allen was involved in a conspiracy to defame him with the Epstein stories. But according to people with knowledge of their relationship and text messages reviewed by The Post, Snyder also was offended that Allen had never sent Snyder a text message congratulating him on hiring Coach Ron Rivera.

In January 2020, after the news conference announcing Rivera’s hire, according to these people, Snyder learned that Allen had sent a congratulatory text to Rivera. Snyder was insulted, these people said, that he didn’t receive a similar text from Allen, whom Snyder had fired a few weeks before.

Later that year, the team, citing the pandemic, attempted to get out of paying Allen all of the money he was owed under his contract. Allen fought back, and Snyder agreed to pay his full salary. But in a message sent to Allen’s lawyers over settlement terms, one of Snyder’s lawyers included a condition that Allen wouldn’t agree to meet, according to text messages reviewed by The Post.

“In addition, I understand that Mr. Allen has agreed to send a text message to Mr. Snyder stating, ‘Congrats on the hire,’ ” Snyder’s attorney wrote in July 2020, seven months after Snyder hired Rivera. Allen’s lawyers resolved the pay dispute, but he never sent this text, according to a person with knowledge of the case.

In April 2021, as Snyder’s effort to unmask leakers continued, his lawyers asked a federal judge in Arizona to compel Allen to turn over text messages, emails and other records that they suggested would show he was a source for both the stories and stories in The Post.

The judge ruled that Snyder needed to come to court in Phoenix to present evidence supporting his suspicions about Allen. Weeks later, Snyder dropped the case. Snyder’s lawsuit against in Indian court remains active, according to court filings there. More than 15 months after a lawyer for Snyder claimed he had “rock-solid” proof of a conspiracy to defame Snyder with stories linking him to Epstein, Snyder’s lawyers have yet to make this evidence public in any court filing, in India or in the United States.

In one of Snyder’s last filings in his case against Allen, his lawyers attached redacted emails between Allen and others, including then-ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. The emails, Snyder’s lawyers said, were meant to show how often Allen communicated with the media. But not long after, unredacted versions of the emails ended up in the hands of reporters.

Over the course of a few days in October, months after Wilkinson’s investigation concluded, Allen’s emails became public in stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, costing Gruden his job and subjecting Allen to public criticism.

In the emails, part of a chain involving Allen and several friends over the course of several years, Gruden made racist, homophobic and misogynistic remarks. A second New York Times story based on another batch of Allen’s emails disclosed his “cozy relationship” with NFL general counsel Jeff Pash.

One of the remaining unanswered questions related to Wilkinson’s investigation is who leaked those emails.

A person familiar with the NFL’s view said some league officials believe the leaks originated with Snyder, through representatives acting on his behalf. Snyder’s critics note the emails did not reflect poorly on him but did damage two of his perceived enemies: Allen and Pash, whose office of investigations appears to have supported Wilkinson’s effort to interview Snyder’s accuser.

At an NFL owners meeting in October, Tanya Snyder told fellow team owners that the leaks did not originate with her, her husband or their franchise, according to multiple people present at the meeting. Gruden, in a lawsuit filed last month, has accused the league of leaking the emails to “sabotage” his career, which the NFL has denied.

Whoever leaked them, the emails led Congress to push the NFL for answers about the Wilkinson probe. And congressional interest has revived hopes among former employees that Goodell will have to make public Wilkinson’s conclusions — about the 2009 allegation against Snyder, his knowledge of the lewd cheerleader videos, his role in his team’s workplace culture and his actions behind the scenes during the NFL probe.

Goodell, in his one news conference since the emails leaked, reiterated the league’s stance that no details from Wilkinson’s investigation would be released, he claimed, to protect the identities of witnesses.

Banks, the D.C. attorney who represents more than 40 former employees who participated in the investigation, has dismissed Goodell’s stance as “categorically false.” Several of her clients wanted to remain anonymous, Banks said, but none objected to a published report.

“My clients wanted a report, and I think Beth Wilkinson intended to write one all along,” Banks said. “But Roger Goodell and the NFL chose to bury whatever she found.”

Mark Maske, Beth Reinhard and Niha Masih contributed reporting.

This story has been updated to include a statement issued by Snyder’s attorneys after the story was published.