The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. attorney general files second lawsuit against Commanders

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine speaks at last week's news conference announcing his office's consumer protection lawsuit against the Commanders, Daniel Snyder, the NFL and Roger Goodell. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
7 min

The office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Washington Commanders regarding refundable deposits that allegedly were not returned by the team to season ticket holders from the District.

In its second filing against the team in eight days, Racine’s office announced that it sued Pro Football Inc., which owns the Commanders, “for implementing an illegal scheme to cheat District ticket holders out of their deposits for season tickets and use the money for its own purposes.”

Filed in the civil division of the D.C. Superior Court, the suit says the Commanders violated the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act and alleges that the team “prioritized its own revenues over fairness and deceived District consumers by wrongly withholding their security deposits that should have been automatically repaid under consumers’ contracts, and improperly using those deposits for the Team’s own purposes.”

Potential bidders for Commanders are fixated on Jeff Bezos’s intent

Racine’s office said in a statement that the Commanders “have returned some of the money to ticket holders but, as of March 2022, they still held nearly $200,000 in unreturned security deposits paid by District consumers. They have also forfeited thousands of dollars from District consumers’ security deposits and converted that money into revenue for the team, to use for its own purposes.”

The office said it will seek a court order “to force the Commanders to stop these illegal practices and pay District ticket holders back what they are owed” as well as financial penalties for violations of the consumer protection act.

“The Team has not accepted security deposits for over 20 years in the case of premium tickets and over a decade in the case of suites, and we began returning them to season ticket holders as early as 2004,” the Commanders said in a statement by a spokesperson. “In 2014, as part of a comprehensive review, Team management was instructed to send notices to over 1,400 customers with deposits and return all security deposits requested.”

The Commanders also said they “engaged an outside law firm and forensic auditors to conduct an extensive review of the team’s accounts which found no evidence that the team intentionally withheld security deposits that should have been returned to customers or that the team improperly converted any unclaimed deposits to revenue.”

A week earlier, Racine’s office filed a consumer protection lawsuit — also in the civil division of the D.C. Superior Court — against the Commanders, 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. The Commanders and the NFL denied the allegations.

“Today’s announcement follows our recent lawsuit against the Commanders, Dan Snyder, NFL, and Roger Goodell, and is yet another example of egregious mismanagement and illegal conduct by Commanders executives who seem determined to lie, cheat, and steal from District residents in as many ways as possible,” Racine wrote Thursday in a statement. “The Commanders’ arrogance and blatant disregard for the law is a slap in the face to District residents who have supported the team for decades. We deserve better, and today my office is taking action yet again to hold them accountable.”

House Republicans say probe of Daniel Snyder will be ‘over’ in January

Some former season ticket holders recently received letters from the team regarding refundable deposits. Racine said last week that was “of course” connected to his office’s investigation.

The issue of the allegedly withheld deposits initially was raised in April when the House Committee on Oversight and Reform detailed allegations of financial improprieties by the team and Snyder in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission. That letter was copied to Racine and fellow attorneys general Jason S. Miyares (R) of Virginia and Brian E. Frosh (D) of Maryland.

The House committee said in April that the team and Snyder “may have engaged in a troubling, long-running, and potentially unlawful pattern of financial conduct” that allegedly involved withholding as much as $5 million in refundable deposits from season ticket holders and also hiding money that was supposed to be shared among NFL owners.

The letter by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the committee’s chairwoman, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the chairman of the subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, detailed allegations made by Jason Friedman, a former vice president of sales and customer service who worked for the franchise for 24 years.

The committee’s letter said that as of July 2016, based on an interview of Friedman and documents he provided to the committee, “the team had unreturned security deposits for ‘around 2,000 accounts’ belonging to customers and fans totaling ‘approximately $5 million.’”

Friedman “provided the Committee with information and documents indicating that the Commanders routinely withheld security deposits that should have been returned to customers who had purchased multiyear season tickets for specific seats, referred to as seat leases,” the April letter said. Friedman told the committee that “team executives directed employees to establish roadblocks to prevent customers from obtaining the security deposits they were due — effectively allowing the team to retain that money,” the letter said.

According to a spreadsheet Friedman provided to the committee, two season tickets that appeared to be registered under Goodell’s name as of July 2016 had an unreturned deposit of approximately $1,000. The security deposit appeared to have been collected before Goodell’s election as NFL commissioner in 2006, according to the spreadsheets. The letter says the committee “has not determined when the security deposit was paid or whether it has since been returned.”

The Commanders and Snyder also are under investigation by the NFL, the Oversight Committee and Miyares’s office. Republicans on the committee said the panel’s investigation will be “over” when they assume leadership of the committee in January.

Investigators for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia have interviewed witnesses about allegations of financial improprieties involving the team, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

For the 2023 season, the team is raising the price of its season tickets at FedEx Field by an average of 4 percent. Not all seats will be more expensive; the prices of nearly 10,000 seats were reduced.

FedEx Field, once the largest stadium in the NFL in capacity, has significantly reduced its seating over the years. Last year, capacity was listed at 67,617. This year, it is down to 62,429 because of modifications to the club level and the need for additional office space for team employees, the team said.

In 2021, the Commanders had the second-lowest average attendance at home games. Although NFL attendance is up 4 percent this season, according to the Sports Business Journal, Washington still lags in comparison to other teams; through Nov. 3, the midpoint of the season, it had the lowest average attendance in the NFL.

The Commanders have said that Snyder and his wife Tanya, the team’s co-CEO, have hired an investment bank to consider offers to sell part or all of the franchise. Some prospective buyers believe the sale process will be slowed by the legal issues surrounding the team, according to individuals familiar with potential ownership discussions.