The Washington Commanders—already subject to investigations by Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, states’ attorneys general and the NFL—are now the target of a criminal investigation launched by the office of Jessica Aber, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia (EDVA).
The probe, reported by ESPN on Wednesday hours after the team announced owner Dan Snyder had retained Bank of America to explore a sale, concerns allegations of financial improprieties, which could eventually lead to criminal charges—and potentially force Snyder out of the NFL.
In April, House Committee on Oversight and Reform chairwoman Carolyn Maloney sent a letter to FTC chair Lina Khan claiming that “for over a decade, Commanders executives may have withheld” as much as $5 million in security deposits from around 2,000 customers, including those who purchased multiyear season tickets. Maloney and other Democratic members have aggressively investigated Commanders officials and Snyder for alleged workplace misconduct and mistreatment of women. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Snyder both testified before Congress over the summer.
Maloney’s letter also suggested the team “concealed revenues that were owed to the NFL as part of a revenue-sharing agreement that redistributes revenues to 32 teams in the League and helps set salaries for the League’s football players.” To facilitate the alleged scheme, the team was accused of using “two sets of books.” One, shared with the NFL and other owners, is described as indicating a fictitiously smaller revenue figure than the other, which was intended for Snyder.
The claims drew largely from the testimony of former Commanders sales executive Jason Friedman, who Commanders’ attorneys have labeled “disgruntled” and untruthful. Friedman provided documentation purporting to show wrongfully retained security deposits in an electronic ticketing and accounting database. He also spoke of sales tactics intended to deceive fans into believing general admission tickets were sold out in hopes it would induce them to pay for higher-priced tickets.
The FTC, which has the legal authority to investigate businesses for deceptive and unfair business practices, has not taken any known action against the Commanders. The agency has the statutory authority to refer matters to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal investigations; Aber, nominated by President Biden last year, reports to the DOJ. The team’s headquarters are in Ashburn, Va., which falls in the EDVA’s jurisdiction.
The Commanders, through an attorney, have categorically denied any wrongdoing and stressed the team’s internal investigation found no wrongdoing. The NFL declined to comment. The league retained former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White to investigate the team and Snyder. Her investigation, which is separate from a government investigation, is ongoing.
Findings of financial improprieties could lead to criminal charges for wire fraud, racketeering or conspiracy. Wire fraud entails a scheme that uses technology to defraud others—in this case, allegedly, consumers and other owners. Racketeering refers to organized groups, or rackets, that run illegal enterprises that appear legitimate to the public. Conspiracy involves a group of individuals agreeing to partake in an illegal plot and taking steps to further the plot. Applicable charges are felonies that carry prison sentences as long as 20 years and usually have a five-year statute of limitations.
Game tickets have generated DOJ criminal investigations. In 2020, Ticketmaster agreed to pay a $10 million fine to resolve computer intrusion and fraud charges stemming from a ticket sale scheme.
A criminal investigation like this one does not necessarily mean the Commanders or Snyder will be charged with a crime. Federal agents might not find enough evidence or reliable testimony. The investigation could also take months, if not longer. Federal charges are usually made through the grand jury process, which is conducted in secret and can last years. Federal grand juries are run by government attorneys (not a judge), and they present evidence to between 16 and 23 grand jurors, 12 of whom must agree to indict for a charge to be brought.
Federal investigations also normally move in phases as prosecutors aim to hold top-level persons accountable for the acts of those under them. Prosecutors sometimes charge or threaten to charge a mid-level organizational member in hopes that person will agree to cooperate by sharing implicating evidence or supplying testimony that leads to a higher-level member being charged. In exchange, the mid-level person might receive immunity or a lighter punishment.
For a league that values control, the NFL has reason to worry about a federal criminal investigation into one of its teams and its accompanying fallout, because the league has no control over federal agents or the trajectory of criminal investigation. An investigation can rely on subpoena powers to force the Commanders to turn over evidence and the intimidation effect of federal agents seeking information from employees who might feel pressured to cooperate. If any other teams have engaged in similar schemes, they too could become subject to the investigation.
The investigation will not improve Snyder’s rocky relationship with the league. Last month Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said, “I believe there is merit to removing him as owner of the [Commanders] … there’s consideration that he should be removed.” The NFL, however, has never removed an owner in its 102-year history. The league would need to charge Snyder with conduct detrimental, and then at least 24 of the 31 other ownership groups would need to sustain the charge, which would in turn would force a sale. Snyder could also sue the league and fellow owners for antitrust and other violations, and it’s been suggested he might leak unflattering information about those owners.
Other NFL owners have faced legal troubles before. In 2019, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft faced two misdemeanor charges in Florida for soliciting prostitution; the charges were dropped in 2020. In 2014, Irsay pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for operating a vehicle while under the influence, and Goodell suspended him six games. A year earlier, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was found to have broken civil state racketeering laws and employed fraudulent bookkeeping practices in a business transaction. Goodell, who has been NFL commissioner since 2006, didn’t punish Wilf. He also didn’t punish Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam after his company, Pilot Flying J, and several of its employees were accused of (and in some cases pleaded guilty to) fraud.
None of those owners, however, faced the degree of threat Snyder and his staff could face through a federal criminal investigation into the team.
A more relevant example might be the federal investigation into then-San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Sr. Although he was not accused of misconduct related to his team, in 1998 he pleaded guilty to concealing an alleged extortion plot involving a former Louisiana governor and the licensing of a riverboat casino. Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended DeBartolo, who avoided prison time in his plea deal, for a year. In 2020, President Donald Trump pardoned DeBartolo.
Kurt Badenhausen, Eben Novy-Williams and Eric Jackson contributed to this report.