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NFL, Gibson Dunn to Investigate Commanders Sex Harass Claim (2)

Feb. 9, 2022, 5:32 PMUpdated: Feb. 9, 2022, 10:09 PM

The Washington Commanders football team said Wednesday that Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher will investigate allegations of sexual harassment against owner Daniel Snyder, though the NFL later said it is conducting the probe.

Pallas Global Group, a New York-based firm formed in 2016 by former federal prosecutors Bonnie Jonas and Tiffany Moller, has retained veteran litigator and Gibson Dunn crisis management chair Debra Wong Yang to lead the inquiry, the Commanders said in a statement.

But NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a subsequent statement that “the league, not the team, will conduct an independent investigation and will be retaining an investigator to determine the facts shortly.”

The dueling statements come a week after Snyder’s franchise, which was most recently known as the Washington Football Team, rebranded itself with new uniforms as the Commanders. That change came after public pressure forced Snyder in 2020 to ditch the team’s former moniker, Redskins, which was criticized as disrespectful of Native American culture.

A former Washington team employee, Tiffani Johnston, alleged last week during a congressional roundtable that Snyder touched her inappropriately during a business dinner 13 years ago. Johnston, a former marketing and events coordinator for the team, also claimed Snyder tried to get her into his limousine after the dinner until his attorney intervened.

Snyder has categorically denied Johnston’s allegations. The owner is being advised by Reed Smith partners A. Scott Bolden and Jordan Siev.

Lisa Banks of whistleblower-focused law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, which is representing Johnston and five other former Washington team employees who have testified about an environment of abuse and harassment in the organization, said in a statement that Johnston would not participate in Snyder’s “sham” investigation.

“The idea that Dan Snyder has hired a team to investigate his own actions is utterly absurd,” Banks said. “This is a desperate public relations stunt, clearly designed to absolve him of wrongdoing.”

The Commanders last month appointed their fourth new legal chief in three years in Mali Friedman. The team said Wednesday morning that Wong Yang will report her findings to Pallas and that the results of her inquiry will be made public.

“The team is committed to a thorough and independent investigation of Ms. Johnston’s allegation and pledges full cooperation with the investigation,” the Commanders said in a statement.

Media representatives for the Commanders didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about the status of its investigation following the NFL’s announcement that it would conduct its own inquiry. Nor did Gibson Dunn.

The firm has done NFL-related work, mostly on behalf of players, including the NFL Players Association, as well as the recently retired Tom Brady, who Gibson Dunn once represented in a court fight over allegedly underinflated footballs.

Gibson Dunn’s Wong Yang is a former top federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who previously led the white-collar defense and investigations practice.

She is part of a pro bono alliance helping victims of Asian hate crimes and is also the stepmother of Evan Spiegel, the co-founder and CEO of Snapchat parent Snap Inc. The company disclosed this month that it paid more than $839,000 to Gibson Dunn last year and that Wong Yang handled legal work on behalf of Snap.

The NFL levied a $10 million fine against Snyder last year following a separate inquiry into harassment claims involving the Washington team conducted by litigator Beth Wilkinson. Snyder initially hired Wilkinson before the NFL took over the inquiry and declined to publicly disclose her findings.

(Updates attribution for quote in third paragraph and adds detail in 11th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com