In the culmination of an investigation that began more than a year ago, the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said Thursday that it filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the Washington Commanders, franchise owner Daniel Snyder, the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell, accusing them of colluding to deceive and mislead customers about an investigation of the team’s workplace to maintain its fan base in pursuit of revenue.
“For years, the team and its owner have caused very real and very serious harm and then lied about it to dodge accountability and to continue to rake in profits,” Racine said at a news conference. “So far, they seem to have gotten away with it. But that stops today.”
The lawsuit was filed in the civil division of D.C. Superior Court. It alleges the team and league violated D.C.’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act with “public misrepresentations, omissions, and ambiguities of material fact.” Racine’s office said it is seeking “financial penalties under the CPPA for every incident in which the Commanders, Mr. Snyder, the NFL, and Commissioner Goodell lied to District residents dating back to July 2020,” adding that the defendants “could face millions of dollars in penalties.”
Racine’s office said it also will seek a court order to force the NFL to release the findings of a previous investigation, conducted by attorney Beth Wilkinson, of the team’s workplace.
“Faced with public outrage over detailed and widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and a persistently hostile work environment at the Team, Defendants made a series of public statements to convince District consumers that this dysfunctional and misogynistic conduct was limited and that they were fully cooperating with an independent investigation,” the lawsuit says. “These statements were false and calculated to mislead consumers so they would continue to support the Team financially without thinking that they were supporting such misconduct.”
The team and the NFL denied the allegations.
“Over two years ago, Dan and Tanya Snyder acknowledged that an unacceptable workplace culture had existed within their organization for several years and they have apologized many times for allowing that to happen,” John Brownlee and Stuart Nash, attorneys for the Commanders, said in a statement issued by the team. “We agree with AG Racine on one thing: the public needs to know the truth. Although the lawsuit repeats a lot of innuendo, half-truths and lies, we welcome this opportunity to defend the organization — for the first time — in a court of law and to establish, once and for all, what is fact and what is fiction.”
Goodell has said the league did not release Wilkinson’s findings because of promises of confidentiality made to witnesses. The NFL said in July 2021 that, based on those findings, the team was being fined $10 million and Snyder’s wife, Tanya, the franchise’s co-CEO, would oversee the Commanders’ daily operations for an unspecified period.
“The independent investigation into workplace misconduct at the Washington Commanders was thoroughly and comprehensively conducted by Beth Wilkinson and her law firm,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement Thursday. “Following the completion of the investigation, the NFL made public a summary of Ms. Wilkinson’s findings and imposed a record-setting fine against the club and its ownership. We reject the legally unsound and factually baseless allegations made today by the D.C. Attorney General against the NFL and Commissioner Goodell and will vigorously defend against those claims.”
The NFL and Goodell have said the findings of a second investigation being conducted by attorney Mary Jo White will be released publicly.
The lawsuit comes as Racine prepares to leave office, and it results from an investigation started in the fall of 2021. Snyder and the Commanders also are being investigated by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and by the office of Jason S. Miyares (R), Virginia’s attorney general.
In addition, investigators for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia have interviewed witnesses about allegations of financial impropriety involving the team, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. The team has denied committing financial impropriety.
Racine’s office does not have criminal enforcement authority in the matter.
The lawsuit says it “seeks accountability from the Washington Commanders, Snyder, the NFL, and Commissioner Goodell for public statements, ambiguities, and omissions that tended to mislead District consumers in the form of injunctive relief, civil penalties, and restitution.”
D.C.’s consumer protection laws allow for a fine of up to $5,000 for each misstatement, Racine said.
Racine said Snyder, the team, Goodell and the league “have every right to answer the complaint” and added: “They can seek to have our case dismissed. We will issue subpoenas. We will seek testimony under oath — depositions. I promise you. Let me just give you a hunch: The depositions are not likely to occur on a yacht but in a conference room in the District of Columbia — because no one is above the law.”
The Commanders said Wednesday in a statement that Racine “appears more interested in making splashy headlines, based on offbeat legal theories, rather than doing the hard work of making the streets safe” and cited the August shooting in Washington of Brian Robinson Jr., a rookie running back for the team. Later Wednesday evening, team president Jason Wright said in a statement that the Commanders should have kept the issues separate.
“It’s customary for bullies to try to bully victims,” Racine said Thursday. “It’s customary for bullies to try to bully even public servants. I looked at that comment candidly. It wasn’t surprising. I held my fire because I knew that the public would catch our back. And boy, oh boy … did the public catch our back.”
Because D.C. is not a state, adult felony prosecutions in the city are handled by the U.S. attorney’s office rather than by the attorney general’s office.
Racine announced last year that he would not seek a third term. D.C. attorney Brian Schwalb was elected Tuesday to succeed him. Schwalb won a three-way race in June, with Racine’s endorsement, for the Democratic nomination and was unopposed in Tuesday’s election. The office includes more than 700 attorneys and staff members and is responsible for enforcing D.C. law through criminal and civil means.
“I’m quite confident that this case is going to continue to move forward,” Racine said.
As the District’s first elected attorney general, Racine’s tenure has featured lawsuits and actions, large and small, that fall within the confines of his office’s limited scope. Racine has gone after negligent landlords and unscrupulous businesses, with a focus on tenant and consumer protection.
But he has taken bigger swings, too. In recent years, he has pursued cases against Facebook, Amazon, the Roman Catholic clergy in D.C. and President Donald Trump. He filed a federal lawsuit against the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers following the Jan. 6 insurrection and recently partnered with attorneys general in California and Illinois to block grocery store chain Albertsons, which owns Safeway, from paying out $4 billion to shareholders ahead of a proposed merger with Kroger.
Attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, who represent more than 40 former team employees, said in a statement Thursday: “Today’s civil complaint … is further evidence of what we’ve long known: that both the Commanders and the NFL have engaged in deception and lies designed to conceal the team’s decades of sexual harassment and abuse, which has impacted not only the victims of that abuse, but also consumers in the District of Columbia. The filing of this complaint also marks an important step in validating the experiences of the brave women and men who came forward to share their experiences and in achieving, for the first time, a level of transparency into the scope of the misconduct.”
Megan Imbert, a former producer in the team’s broadcast department, attended Racine’s news conference Thursday.
“Frankly, the past 2½ years, this is kind of the moment we’ve been waiting for,” she said. “We’ve been seeking transparency, accountability. … But fundamentally I really want to see Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell accountable for what I believe was a coverup.”
The Commanders announced last week that Daniel and Tanya Snyder had hired an investment bank to “consider potential transactions” related to the franchise. The Commanders did not specify whether the Snyders are considering the sale of the entire franchise or a minority share. A team spokesperson said then, “We are exploring all options.”
Among those who have been mentioned as prospective buyers of the team are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post; music mogul Jay-Z, a potential partner with Bezos in a bid; Mat Ishbia, president and CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage; and media entrepreneur Byron Allen. Actor Matthew McConaughey is exploring the possibility of joining or forming an investment group to bid, a person familiar with the situation said.
“The way the law works is that legal wrongs committed during a period of time need to be vindicated regardless of whether there is a sale of the franchise,” Racine said Thursday. “This lawsuit will continue. There will be accountability unless and until it’s settled. And if it is settled, we’re going to tell you everything that we found.”
Michael Brice-Saddler and Liz Clarke contributed to this report.