Saints' toughest foe this season will be accuser Santini

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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No one knows who is telling the truth in what is becoming one of the strangest and most talked about stories in the NFL. No one can say who's lying: Saints hero Sean Payton or a former FBI man who dedicated much of his life to enforcing the law.

Right now, what's accurate in this case -- where the Saints' former chief of security, Geoffrey Santini, alleges in a lawsuit the Saints covered up Vicodin abuse and theft -- is anyone's guess.

Head coach Sean Payton's biggest challenge? The well-respected Geoffrey Santini. (Getty Images)  
Head coach Sean Payton's biggest challenge? The well-respected Geoffrey Santini. (Getty Images)  
Here is what we do know.

The accuser, Santini, might be the fiercest opponent this current Saints regime has ever faced, far more dangerous to the organization than Brett Favre or Peyton Manning.

Santini took down a governor and he destroyed a former NFL owner after years of meticulous and aggressive criminal investigating. Now he's targeting the Saints.

Santini's viewed within NFL team security circles as diligent and credible. One current team head of security jokingly nicknamed him "The Great Santini" after a 1970s movie about a military aviator forced to deal with the perils of heroism and self-sacrifice.

No, we don't know about the merits of this suit that claims Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were part of some alleged Vicodin theft. What's certain is based on Santini's tenacious history, the Saints are in for one hell of a fight.

The most important aspect of this case may be gauging the credibility of Santini, who spent 31 years in the FBI.

Santini's story really begins with a massive corruption scandal surrounding the Louisiana governorship of Edwin Edwards in the 1990s.

Edwards was the only person elected Louisiana governor four times. Author Tyler Bridges wrote on the massive scandal that enveloped Edwards in the book Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards.

In May of 2000, some four years after his final term, Edwards was found guilty on 17 corruption related counts including extortion, money-laundering and engaging in criminal enterprise relating to Louisiana's pursuit of legalized gambling. It was a devastating blow to a state unfortunately accustomed to political scandals.

The centrifuge of Edwards' takedown was -- yes -- Santini.

Santini's investigation began after a tip and four years later it led to the conviction of the governor and his imprisonment. According to the book and published accounts, Santini navigated a complicated web of corruption, bribery and Mafia involvement. What he did is the stuff of movies. Santini was so feared that according to court documents Edwards wanted to tap Santini's phone lines.

But Santini's investigation didn't ensnare only Edwards. Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo also became entangled in the ugly story.

In 1998 DeBartolo pled guilty in federal court to a felony charge that Edwards extorted $400,000 from him so DeBartolo could get a casino license.

In testimony leading to DeBartolo's admission, Santini described DeBartolo's actions during an alleged several-year courtship in which DeBartolo at first resisted but then finally agreed to pay Edwards the money (Edwards was paid using $100 bills). DeBartolo avoided jail time but was fined $1 million and received two years probation. He agreed to testify in future trials against Edwards.

After Santini was done with DeBartolo, the reputation of the former 49ers owner within the NFL community was utterly obliterated. If it weren't for Santini, there's a good chance DeBartolo would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame now.

Santini's pressure led to DeBartolo testifying against Edwards. Santini was hailed in the media as a hero and sealed his reputation as a guy you don't mess with.

That's who the Saints are now going against.

None of these accusations obscures what the Saints did on the field. They remain, and always will, one of the best feel-good stories of all time.

Yet it seems as if the team underestimated the tenacity of Santini just as Edwards might have. Just as DeBartolo might have.

No, we don't know the truth. Yet. We do know the man making the accusations isn't someone to be taken lightly.

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