An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused owner Daniel Snyder of sexually harassing and assaulting her in April 2009, three months before the team agreed to pay the woman $1.6 million as part of a confidential settlement, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Washington Post.
Snyder denied the woman’s allegations, the letter states, and a team investigation accused her of fabricating her claims as part of an extortion attempt. But Snyder and the team eventually agreed to pay her a seven-figure sum as part of a settlement in which she agreed not to sue or publicly disclose her allegations.
The existence of a $1.6 million settlement was first reported by The Post in 2020. Details of her allegations have not been previously reported. They emerge as the NFL investigates a separate accusation of sexual harassment against Snyder and as members of Congress press the team and the NFL for information about the league’s year-long investigation of sexual harassment at the franchise, which concluded in 2021 with no public report or investigative findings.
Snyder, through his attorneys, declined an interview request, and his attorneys declined to comment. Snyder called the woman’s claims “meritless” in a court filing in 2020, saying the team only settled at the request of an insurance company. His accuser and her attorney, Brendan Sullivan, declined to comment. The Post typically does not name alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent.
The letter obtained by The Post was written by Howard Shapiro, an attorney at WilmerHale law firm, which had assisted in investigating the woman’s allegations. In his letter, written in response to the woman’s legal threats, Shapiro argued forcefully that her claims were “knowingly false,” made numerous allegations in attempts to undermine her credibility and said Snyder and the team would “seek damages” from her. Shapiro and WilmerHale did not respond to requests for comment.
The letter makes no mention of NFL involvement in the team investigation. The league’s personal conduct policy in 2009 required investigations of sexual assault allegations to be overseen by the league office, with Commissioner Roger Goodell determining any discipline. The team’s investigation in 2009, according to the letter, was overseen by then-general counsel David Donovan, who reported to Snyder.
The NFL and Donovan declined to comment.
In concluding the woman fabricated the assault, the letter says, Donovan cited the plane’s tight configuration and quiet engine, as well as interviews with passengers who said they didn’t notice signs of an assault or distress during the flight.
He also accused her of lying during the investigation, the letter states, by claiming she maintained an “impeccable personal and professional reputation.” To undermine that claim, Donovan cited allegations about the woman’s personal conduct, including that she wore revealing clothing and flirted with other men on the trip to Las Vegas.
The Post described the team investigation, as summarized in the letter, to three experts in sexual assault investigations, who said the team may have been justified in concluding that the woman’s claim was unsubstantiated. But these experts said the evidence cited in the letter does not prove the woman fabricated her claims, and they criticized the inclusion of potentially damaging allegations about the woman’s personal life, regardless of Donovan’s rationale.
“This is exactly the type of stuff we’ve worked hard since the 1970s to abolish from how sex crimes are investigated,” said Joanne Archambault, a retired sergeant with the San Diego Police Department who oversaw sex crimes investigations and the founder of End Violence Against Women International.
D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson, who led the NFL’s investigation of Washington’s workplace, interviewed Snyder’s 2009 accuser in 2020, The Post previously reported. But she did so amid what she later described as efforts by Snyder’s lawyers to “silence” the woman, including by offering her more money to not speak with the NFL investigator. An attorney for Snyder has denied these allegations.
As Wilkinson investigated in 2020, she also fended off a lawsuit by Donovan, who asked a federal judge to prohibit Wilkinson from disclosing anything about the 2009 investigation or settlement in her final report to the NFL. The Post attempted to intervene in the case, to advocate for the unsealing of records, but a judge denied the request.
Donovan dropped his lawsuit, but whatever Wilkinson concluded about the 2009 allegations against Snyder remains confidential because of Goodell’s refusal to release any public report or findings from her investigation. Wilkinson declined to comment.
Goodell’s handling of Wilkinson’s investigation led Democrats on the House Oversight Committee to launch their own inquiry last fall. That probe surfaced the new allegation of sexual harassment against Snyder, by former employee Tiffani Johnston. Appearing before the committee in February, Johnston, a former cheerleader and marketing manager for the team, accused the owner of putting his hand on her leg under the table at a team dinner and trying to force her into his limousine.
Snyder has denied Johnston’s allegations. The NFL hired Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney and chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to investigate her claims as well as accusations of financial improprieties raised by a former vice president of sales, which the team also has denied.
White did not reply to requests for comment.
On Wednesday, Goodell is scheduled to appear before the House Oversight Committee to discuss the NFL’s handling of its investigation of Washington’s workplace culture. Snyder declined a request to appear at the same hearing, saying he had a team-related business meeting in another country the same day.
‘A higher standard’
In one of Goodell’s first significant acts as NFL commissioner, he strengthened the league’s personal conduct policy in 2007 after a string of off-the-field scandals involving players accused of criminal activity.
The new policy applied to everyone associated with the NFL, including owners, and prohibited any “conduct detrimental to the integrity” of the league. The policy went beyond barring just criminal activity, the league announced, and neither a conviction nor an arrest was required for the NFL to investigate and impose discipline.
“It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime,” the updated policy said in April 2007. “As an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard.” Upon learning of an alleged violation of the policy, the league office would direct an investigation, and Goodell would determine whether any punishment was warranted.
Two years later, the woman who worked for the NFL’s Washington franchise, now known as the Commanders, returned from a weekend work trip to Las Vegas with a startling accusation. On the return flight, the woman alleged, Snyder sexually assaulted her.
According to the letter, the woman alleged that Snyder asked her to sit with him in a private area at the back of the plane, away from the other passengers. At one point during the flight, she alleged, Snyder asked her for sex, groped her and attempted to pull off her clothing before she stopped the assault and pushed him away.
Snyder and the woman were joined on the plane by six other passengers, two pilots and two flight attendants, according to the letter, which does not identify any of the other people on board. The group had attended the previous night’s Academy of Country Music Awards, a show put on by Dick Clark Productions, which Snyder owned at the time.
Efforts by The Post to identify the other passengers and the crew on board have been unsuccessful. Multiple former longtime pilots for Snyder did not respond to requests for comment, and several other former members of the team’s senior management, who might have had knowledge of the woman’s allegations, declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.
The woman did not report her allegations to law enforcement in 2009, according to multiple people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Instead, she hired an attorney and dealt directly with the team.
A few days after returning from Las Vegas, the woman met with Donovan and reported her allegations, the letter states. Donovan then hired WilmerHale, the firm where he worked before and after his tenure with the team, to assist him as he investigated, he later said in a court filing.
As he led the investigation, Donovan reported to Snyder as general counsel of both the team and Red Zebra Broadcasting, another company owned by Snyder at the time. This relationship constituted a conflict of interest, according to Elaine Herskowitz, former staff attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“You can’t have the person leading your investigation concerned they might get fired if they come to the wrong conclusion,” said Herskowitz, now a consultant. “That’s a huge problem. This whole investigation didn’t have enough independence and neutrality.”
Corporate general counsels typically oversee sexual harassment investigations of rank-and-file staff, Herskowitz said. When the accused is the chief executive, she said, the best way to ensure objectivity is to hire an outside expert or law firm. The findings should then go to an entity that oversees the chief executive, such as a board of directors, she said.
While Donovan did hire an outside firm to assist, his involvement with the investigation was still problematic, according to Herskowitz, as was the involvement of another team executive who reported to Snyder: then-chief operating officer Mitch Gershman. When Donovan concluded his investigation, according to the letter, he reported his finding that the woman had lied for the purpose of extorting the team to Gershman, who fired the woman for making “fictitious statements” about Snyder. Gershman did not reply to requests for comment.
Three former minority shareholders who were members of the team’s board of directors in 2009 — FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith, real estate developer Dwight Schar and investor Robert Rothman — declined to comment or did not reply to requests for comment.
The team pushes back
In the letter, Shapiro, the attorney for the team, claimed Donovan’s investigation uncovered “uncontroverted evidence disproving” the woman’s allegations against Snyder. The letter then details some of that evidence.
None of the other passengers on the flight supported the woman’s account, according to the letter. Snyder didn’t direct anyone on where to sit, these people said, and one person claimed the woman pushed her way to the back of the plane and wasn’t invited there by Snyder.
Others said that the door to the back area was open for most of the flight, with other passengers and flight attendants making frequent, unannounced visits, and that they didn’t hear any noises consistent with an assault. And after Snyder’s accuser returned from sitting with Snyder, these people said, she acted amiably, making conversation while giving no indication she had just been assaulted.
Donovan also claimed the woman offered a shifting account of her assault. In the woman’s first meeting with Donovan, he alleged, she claimed Snyder “f---ed” her. A few days later, she stated Snyder “put his hands down my pants.” On a third occasion, she stated Snyder “groped” her.
In the letter, the team asserted that the woman was lying as part of an extortion attempt. The woman mentioned personal financial distress in her first meeting with Donovan, he alleged, and asked for a settlement. Donovan also cited an email he uncovered in which the woman complained to her husband about a credit card balance of more than $35,000, as well as the fact the woman had recently learned she wouldn’t be receiving an expected bonus from the team.
Donovan also included in his investigation, according to the letter, allegations about the woman’s personal conduct in the days and months before she accused Snyder, saying they undermined her claim of professionalism.
Among these allegations, according to the letter: The woman dressed in a “sexually provocative manner” and wore a revealing halter top one evening during the trip to Las Vegas. Another person alleged that the woman was flirtatious with another man that weekend and engaged in “dirty dancing.” The woman denied the allegations, the letter states.
“This goes against everything that is best practice in sex assault investigations,” said Elizabeth Donegan, a retired sergeant with the Austin Police Department who led the sex crimes unit. “Allegations about how a woman dresses, if she flirts with other men … this stuff has absolutely nothing to do with whether an assault occurred."
The experts in sex assault investigations said they could understand a finding that the woman’s claim was unsubstantiated, because there were no witnesses and because the letter makes no mention of the woman providing supporting evidence of an assault beyond her account.
But in claiming Donovan had proved the woman had lied, according to the letter, the team made a series of conclusive leaps, these experts said.
The letter does not dispute the woman was alone with Snyder in a private area of the plane for a time but cites claims by other passengers that they didn’t hear or see anything suggesting an assault occurred.
“Just because no one else saw or heard anything doesn’t mean it’s definitely false,” said Archambault, the former San Diego sex crimes sergeant.
And just because the woman didn’t appear disheveled or traumatized after she returned to the cabin with the other passengers, experts said, doesn’t mean she lied about being assaulted.
“There’s no set way that victims always behave immediately after being assaulted,” said Justin Boardman, a retired detective who investigated sex crimes for the West Valley City police in Utah.
A fine without findings
In the letter, Snyder demanded a declaration that no assault occurred and suggested he would attempt to seek financial damages and legal fees from his accuser. When the sides eventually settled in July 2009, however, Snyder did not get any declaration from the woman, and the team instead agreed to pay her.
In exchange for $1.6 million, according to a draft of the settlement previously reported by The Post, the woman agreed not to speak publicly about her allegations. The team, Snyder and Donovan also agreed to never speak publicly about the team’s allegations about the woman. The team agreed to change her personnel file to state that she was not fired but resigned and to offer a letter of recommendation that described the woman as “well-respected by her colleagues."
For the next 11 years, the settlement remained a closely held secret, known only to those directly involved and a few close advisers to Snyder, until the team’s workplace culture came under public scrutiny in 2020.
When Wilkinson began investigating that July, Goodell initially permitted Snyder and the team to oversee her work. There were no direct allegations about Snyder’s conduct in The Post report that prompted the team to hire Wilkinson, and Snyder publicly pledged Wilkinson’s investigation would be “full” and “unbiased.”
Hostility quickly developed between Wilkinson and lawyers for Snyder, however, over her efforts to interview the 2009 accuser. While the team publicly released former employees from nondisclosure agreements to speak, Snyder’s lawyers argued to Wilkinson this release did not apply to the 2009 accuser, The Post previously reported.
The NFL eventually assumed oversight of Wilkinson’s investigation, and she interviewed Snyder’s accuser at some point in late 2020. As she was preparing to interview Snyder in November 2020, however, Donovan sued Wilkinson in federal court, seeking an injunction that would prohibit her from discussing anything connected to the 2009 settlement with the NFL. He dropped the suit within weeks.
When the NFL announced the conclusions of Wilkinson’s investigation, in July 2021, the league fined the team $10 million for having an abusive workplace culture but released no public report. That kept any conclusions Wilkinson made about the 2009 allegations against Snyder confidential, but it also, in effect, triggered another investigation of the team’s front office. This investigation, overseen by White, will produce public findings, the NFL has said.
White is investigating several allegations produced during the House Oversight Committee’s inquiry, including the harassment allegation levied against Snyder by Johnston, the former cheerleading manager and marketing director.
Johnston is represented by Lisa Banks, an attorney who also represents more than 40 other former employees who participated in Wilkinson’s investigation. In a statement, Banks expressed optimism White would examine the 2009 settlement.
“I hope and expect that Mary Jo White will include in her investigation the facts underlying the 2009 settlement,” Banks said. “Such information would be directly relevant to the allegations of my client, and therefore squarely within the scope of Ms. White’s investigation."
The day Johnston went public with her allegations, Snyder publicly denounced them as “outright lies.” A few days later, the Commanders announced they had hired a law firm to investigate. Hours later, the NFL publicly overruled the team by announcing it would hire its own investigator.
During a news conference that day, Goodell explained the league’s reasoning for not allowing the Commanders to oversee an investigation into accusations against the team and its owner.
“I do not see any way,” Goodell said, “a team can do its own investigation of itself.”
Liz Clarke and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.