September 25, 2020

NFL investigation leads to questions on law firm choice


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Robert-MuellerBy Katelyn Polantz, Legal Times, From National Law Journal

Penn State commissioned the Freeh Report. Major League Baseball got the Mitchell Report. Now the National Football League will have a Mueller Report.

The NFL announced Wednesday it has hired former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller III of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr to investigate its handling of the caught-on-video assault by former player Ray Rice.

The question posed is what the NFL knew about the assault and when. Simply by asking for help from a former federal leader, the NFL aimed to show credibility, according to white-collar attorneys who aren’t working on the matter.

“You’re not going to hire Robert Mueller if you’re looking for a whitewash,” said Andrew Weissmann, a senior fellow at New York University School of Law and former FBI general counsel under Mueller. “Mueller has a real M.O. about the way he analyzed things. Is there any problem? Was there a mistake made? How do you fix it?”

Clients often hire firms with whom they have a business connection, as Wilmer does with the NFL. But those choices must gain the trust of a scrutinizing public that seeks independent answers.

Whatever the result, Mueller will have a fine line to tip-toe across in his report, said Jim Mintz, founder of the Mintz Group, an investigations company that contracts with law firms. A report of this type will answer the questions the client asks of it, Mintz said. It may not reach further to look at systemic or related problems throughout the organization.

“There’s always the question in an investigation like this of where is the edge of it? Where do you stop?” Mintz said. “You want somebody who will do what needs to be done and not go further.”

Mintz worked last year with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld on a misconduct investigation into former Utah attorney general John Swallow. Swallow resigned last year and faces charges.

Other reports have faced more scrutiny, including Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s investigation into New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the closing of entrances to the George Washington Bridge. Democratic critics like New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said the report’s finding that Christie committed no wrongs was “not worth the paper it was written on,” according to The Star-Ledger of Newark.

Wilmer and the NFL

Wilmer knows the NFL well.

Richard Cass, president of the Baltimore Ravens, where Rice played, worked as a partner and management committee member at Wilmer for more than 30 years. Wilmer partner David Donovan previously worked as general counsel and chief operating officer of the Washington Redskins. And corporate-practice partner Tom Ward has represented the NFL for the NFL Sunday Ticket broadcast package deal.

Wilmer spokesperson Brecke Latham didn’t respond to questions on how much the NFL will pay Wilmer or on the extent of the law firm’s past connections to the league.

In the Christie investigation, Gibson has billed New Jersey more than $6.5 million. The Freeh Report, a scalding investigation of Penn State University following the revelations of child abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, cost $8.1 million. Louis Freeh, the FBI director prior to Mueller, led that investigation through his namesake consulting firm and Pepper Hamilton, the firm he now chairs.

Besides these, most general-service firms can work on internal investigations, sometimes under their white-collar practice headers, other times as part of government-contracts practices. For Wilmer, the FBI work falls under an “investigations and criminal litigation” group.

Many investigations often conclude long before federal indictments or media reports expose the issue. The service, usually performed by former federal investigators and prosecutors, is a profitable and common one at elite large firms.

But the public nature of Mueller’s work makes the situation somewhat peculiar and tougher for a firm.

NBC Sports’ Mike Florio, for instance, asked Thursday in a blog post “How independent will Robert Mueller be?” The National Organization for Women in a statement called Mueller’s appointment on the investigation “window dressing.”

Others took to Twitter to react:

Mueller joined Wilmer about six months ago after leaving the FBI, which he had led since September 2001. Since March, he has spoken publicly about cybersecurity issues at companies.

Mueller wasn’t available for an interview Thursday. He will work on the NFL investigation alongside NFL team owners Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and John Mara of the New York Giants.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello didn’t respond to a request for comment.

IMAGE: Robert Mueller Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

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