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Daniel Snyder was not ‘hands off’ as an NFL owner, witnesses told committee

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/2/2022 Nicki Jhabvala, Liz Clarke, Mark Maske
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When reports surfaced nearly two years ago that the Washington NFL team’s workplace was rife with sexual harassment, owner Daniel Snyder initially attacked the claims as “a hit job” and part of an orchestrated campaign to defame him. Later, amid scrutiny from the NFL, Snyder shouldered partial responsibility, saying that he had been “too hands off” in his stewardship of the team.

He ousted executives accused of wrongdoing, hired Jason Wright as the first Black team president in NFL history and installed a new management hierarchy that was markedly more diverse than his previous leadership regimes as part of what the team — and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in recent testimony before Congress — called an organizational transformation.

Documents released June 22 by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, however, tell a different story. According to sworn depositions of two former team executives whose tenures covered a 17-year span and additional testimony from another, Snyder didn’t simply preside over an organization in which toxic behavior was rampant; rather, he was an active participant, modeling abusive behavior that his top deputies often mimicked, creating a workplace that was corrosive to male executives, some of whom later regretted their actions, as well as young women.

“Mr. Snyder himself fostered the Commanders’ toxic workplace,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the committee’s chairwoman, said at the outset of a June 22 hearing, summarizing the committee’s findings.

The evidence for Maloney’s assertion was laid out in 750 pages of sworn depositions and transcribed interviews with three former team executives and a former cheerleaders captain, which the committee released in conjunction with its public hearing to question Snyder and Goodell about its preliminary findings. The documents include accounts of being ridiculed and demeaned by Snyder, watching other executives do the same to lower-level employees, witnessing the harassment of female employees who “were treated like a piece of meat,” as one said, and being asked to lie and engage in unethical behavior as part of their jobs.

Snyder declined to take part in the hearing; Goodell participated remotely.

Offered the opportunity to respond to the specific allegations laid out in the committee’s materials, a spokesperson for Snyder issued the following statement: “Despite Mr. Snyder’s continued apologies and regret for the historical problems that arose at the team, The Washington Post goes out of its way to assail his character and ignore the successful efforts by both Dan and Tanya Snyder, together with Jason Wright and Coach Ron Rivera, for over the past two years to bring about a remarkable transformation to the organization. The Snyders will continue to focus on their league-leading fight to bring greater respect and much-needed diversity and equality to the workplace in the face of constant and baseless attacks from the media and elsewhere.”

The committee also found in its eight-month investigation that despite professing full cooperation with the NFL-sponsored probe led by attorney Beth Wilkinson beginning in July 2020, Snyder waged a “shadow campaign” through lawyers and private investigators to undermine her work, discredit former employees and suspected accusers, and shift blame for his role in the team’s toxic culture.

In sworn testimony before the committee, Goodell told lawmakers that the league’s investigation confirmed that the Washington team’s workplace for years was “unprofessional and unacceptable in numerous respects: bullying, widespread disrespect toward colleagues, use of demeaning language, public embarrassment, and harassment.”

But Goodell attested to the team’s transformation of culture and leadership since.

“The most recent independent workplace report, which we have shared with the Committee, confirms that an entirely new, highly skilled and diverse management team is in place and that there has been a ‘substantial transformation of [the team’s] culture, leadership and human resources practices,’ ” Goodell stated, quoting from the league’s report. “To be clear, the workplace at the Commanders today bears no resemblance to the workplace that has been described to this committee.”

The NFL declined further comment.

Daniel Snyder conducted ‘shadow investigation’ of accusers, panel finds

Snyder has remained at odds with committee members since they launched their investigation in October 2021 and continued this year. During that span, Snyder has not provided documents requested by the committee and has yet to accept service of a congressional subpoena after refusing an invitation to testify at its June 22 hearing.

During his deposition June 7, which lasted more than six hours, Dave Pauken, the team’s chief operating officer from 2001 to 2006, likened the workplaces dynamic to “an abusive relationship” and placed Snyder at the heart of it.

“The culture was how Dan wanted the culture at the time,” said Pauken, who testified under oath after being subpoenaed by the panel. “ … I think that in the end, it all stems from the owner, Dan Snyder.”

Asked about Snyder’s assertion that he had simply been too “hands off,” Pauken described him rather as an owner steeped in every detail of the organization.

“My reaction was that that is not a true statement,” Pauken said. Asked to elaborate, he said, “I have no experience with him, nor do any of my colleagues, where he was hands off.”

Pauken worked as an executive for nearly a decade at two of Snyder’s companies, Snyder Communications (1996-2000) and the NFL team (2001-06). Asked to describe Snyder as a businessman based on that experience, Pauken praised his acumen while taking issue with his style.

“He is a visionary. He is very smart. He understands how to create value. And there’s a lot to be learned from him,” Pauken said. “On the other hand, I find him to be overly aggressive, abusive and demeaning to those that are around him.”

On more than one occasion, Pauken said, Snyder summoned him before kickoff to the owner’s box overlooking FedEx Field, where the owner and a friend would watch the cheerleaders’ pregame practice.

“He would say to his friend, ‘Hey, do you think Dave is gay?’ ” Pauken testified. “And his friend would say, ‘Yeah, he must be gay.’ And Dan would say: ‘Yeah, he has to be gay, as ugly as these cheerleaders are. Pauken, are you gay? You must be gay. How could you have a cheerleading squad that looked like this?’ ”

Pauken recounted an instance when Snyder called him and a fellow executive into his office to inform them he had hired Mitch Gershman to take over their role overseeing premium-seat sales, stating that Gershman “had more sales and marketing knowledge in his left testicle than” the two of them had in their entire bodies.

“Those are Dan’s words,” Pauken testified. “Verbatim.”

Subpoena for Daniel Snyder, scrutiny for Roger Goodell at partisan hearing

Pauken said that when he took moral stands during front-office meetings — such as advocating for less risque outfits and choreography for the team’s cheerleaders — Snyder often mocked him in front of his peers.

“He would call me Mr. Goody Two Shoes,” Pauken testified. “Or he would say to another executive or friend or somebody that I don’t like girls. I’m Mr. Goody Two Shoes. … That was just part of what it was like being in an abusive relationship.”

Pauken said he regretted many things he did at Snyder’s behest during his employment, such as not challenging the owner’s insistence on firing female employees for consensual, in-office sexual relationships but not sanctioning the male executives or players involved.

Chief among his regrets, he said, was complying with a directive from Snyder aimed at Mark Lerner, a real estate magnate who later became owner of the Washington Nationals. Snyder had purchased from Lerner a parcel of land near FedEx Field for additional parking and, according to Pauken’s testimony, subsequently decided he had paid too much. So, Pauken told the committee, Snyder instructed him to pour milk on the carpet under the seating in Mark Lerner’s suite at FedEx Field so it would smell rancid throughout the next game.

Jason Friedman, a marketing executive whose 24-year career with the team spanned the Cooke family ownership and that of Snyder, told the committee that when Snyder took over, “the focus changed from one of quality to one of quantity” and “the culture of the company sort of glorified drinking and womanizing.”

Friedman spoke to the committee voluntarily after first sending the panel a letter to buttress the allegation that former cheerleader and marketing executive Tiffani Johnston leveled against Snyder during a Feb. 3 public roundtable with committee members on Capitol Hill. Johnston told the committee she was seated beside Snyder during a business dinner and had to remove his hand from her thigh under the table. Afterward, she said, Snyder put his hand on her back and tried to steer her into his waiting limousine. Snyder publicly denounced Johnston’s allegations at the time as “outright lies.”

Friedman said team employees were afraid of getting fired “because they had seen so many others lose their jobs.”

According to Friedman, in one of Snyder’s first days as owner, a memo was sent to everyone in the organization about a meeting at the stadium late in the day. Employee firings started that morning, and by the start of the meeting later in the day, 75 percent of the staff had been let go, Friedman testified. The ones that made the cut made it to the meeting.

“So there was sort of a message sent to the rest of us that, you know, you’re deemed to be worthy of working for the new owner, march on,” Friedman said.

In snubbing House panel, Daniel Snyder may have increased his legal peril

Like Pauken, Brian Lafemina, a former chief operating officer and president of business operations, was subpoenaed by the committee and thus legally required to testify under oath.

During questioning April 8, Lafemina related an anecdote that undercut Snyder’s claim that he had been unaware of workplace misconduct and took swift action once informed. Lafemina testified that, in a 2018 conversation, he informed Snyder about a female employee’s credible complaint about misconduct by play-by-play announcer Larry Michael.

Snyder “said that Larry was a sweetheart and that Larry wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Lafemina testified. “. . . It was obvious that he was fond of Larry and that he thought that Larry was well intentioned and that he didn’t want anything bad to happen to Larry.”

In July 2020, roughly two years after that conversation, Michael abruptly retired on the eve of a Washington Post report that included the former marketing executive’s account of his repeated unwelcome overtures. Michael declined to comment Friday.

Abigail Dymond Welch, an eight-year veteran and former captain of the team’s cheerleading squad, told the committee of events that took place in the months after the workplace allegations surfaced publicly and the team had undertaken its front-office overhaul. Welch said a private investigator who said he “worked on behalf of the Washington Redskins” appeared at her Texas home in April and May 2021 to ask about “interactions” with Bruce Allen and the sexual misconduct investigation into the team.

Those visits occurred seven months after Debra Katz, an attorney for a former team employee, said in a court hearing that the NFL had told Snyder to “back off” in his use of private investigators.

Welch told the committee that she knew of “maybe five” other former cheerleaders who had been visited at home by private investigators seeking similar information.

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