Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Morning Conflicts Quarterbacking?


A reader sent word of a conflicts allegation making big news. Whether the discussion involves team names or player health, the NFL has faced its share of controversies this year.

These latest allegations relate to the recent appointment of an independent investigator to review the way the Ray Rice domestic abuse matter has been managed. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appointed former FBI director and current partner at an AmLaw 20 firm, Robert Mueller. That move brought immediate controversy, which the league defended last Friday, and the media continues to analyze.

Here's what commentator Mike Florio thought, writing on the NBC Sports web site: "How independent will Robert Mueller be?" --
  • "When I saw that two old-guard owners would oversee what would otherwise be an independent investigation, I became a little concerned that the investigation wouldn’t truly be independent."
  • "When I realized that the man hired to do the investigation works for WilmerHale, the law firm that helped the NFL recently negotiate a multi-billion-dollar contract with DirecTV, any hope of true and genuine independence evaporated.  As explained by ESPN.com, the firm previously has represented Washington owner Daniel Snyder, and several members of the firm have taken jobs with NFL teams."
Florio's later update includes details of to Goodell's more recent explanation : "Goodell defends Mueller’s investigation" --
  • "'The law firm that he works for is a law firm with extremely close ties to the NFL,' CNN’s Rachel Nichols said to Goodell. "You guys paid that law firm to help you negotiate some television deals. The president of the Ravens, who will be key in this whole investigation, worked at that law firm for more than 30 years. Why hire someone with even the appearance of impropriety and how do you expect us to accept everything?'"
  • "'I respectfully disagree,' Goodell said. "You are questioning the integrity of the director of the FBI. Yes, that firm has represented us in the past. They have also been on the other side in litigation against the NFL. So this is a highly respected individual, the longest serving director in the FBI.'"
  • "'Part of the idea of this is to restore public trust,' she said. 'So even if he does a flawless investigation isn’t there an element here of your leaving the door open for doubt?'"
  • "'Well, Rachel, unfortunately we live in a world where there is a lot of litigation,' Goodell said.  'A lot of law firms and maybe people have had some interaction with us in the past. Robert Mueller has not. The law firm may have. We are hiring Robert Mueller, his credentials to do an independent investigation reporting to the owners and I’m confident that will be the case.'"
And then Florio adds his own commentary:
  • "But there are thousands of law firms and thousands of lawyers capable of doing a fair and impartial investigation. Mueller’s appointment gives the investigation credibility on the surface, because he ran the FBI. The failure to pick a lawyer from a firm with no past connection and, most importantly, no aspiration for any future connection to the NFL prevents the investigation from having the appearance of independence."
  • "Ultimately, the decision to pick Mueller was just another mistake in the chain of blunders that has turned the NFL on its head. At a time when it’s become very popular for people connected to the NFL to talk about getting it right, how about we stop saying it and start doing it?"
Which is echoed by other commentators, such as Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune: "Yes, Roger, I am questioning Mueller's standing" --
  • "Yes, Roger Goodell, as a matter of fact, I am questioning Robert Mueller’s integrity. Yours is gone, Roger. Long gone. Way gone. But sad to say, so is Mueller’s."
  • "Everybody watching the NFL should question Mueller’s integrity, which disappeared when he accepted the invitation to investigate Goodell’s horrible handling of the Ray Rice case. Mueller, a former FBI director, works for a law firm that has represented the NFL, specifically negotiating a broadcast deal. Mueller’s firm also has worked for two NFL teams, the Cowboys and Redskins, in cases against the NFL."
  • "This is a clear conflict of interest. Even the appearance of conflict of interest is a conflict of interest. Even a pinhead lawyer like Goodell could make that argument in court."
Ethically permissible or not, the relationships and history underlying this situation present yet another example of the sound bite appearances, coupled with external attention create challenges.

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