|Roger Goodell denies placing gag orders on Saints employees. (AP)|
NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL is denying accusations that it covered up retractions made by key witnesses in its bounty investigation, or that Commissioner Roger Goodell has placed gag orders on Saints employees and others who could help punished players clear their names.
Lawyer Peter Ginsberg, who represents suspended Saints player Jonathan Vilma, made the accusations when punished players appeared earlier this week for an appeal hearing, a full transcript of which has been obtained by the Associated Press.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says claims of a gag order are "completely untrue," and that no potential witnesses were instructed by the league to stay away from Monday's hearing.
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The transcript also shows that the NFL Players Association formally asked Goodell to recuse himself from ongoing appeal proceedings, contending that he is incapable of ruling "without the appearance of bias."
"The commissioner has publicly appeared on television and in other (forums) defending the discipline," NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. "We would ask that the commissioner step down, to the extent that these proceedings continue, as the decision maker and that a neutral decision maker be appointed in his place."
The early portions of the transcript detail a series of verbal jousts that Ginsberg sought to deliver to the commissioner before leaving the appeal hearing early in protest.
In discussing witnesses he has been unable to speak with, Ginsberg told Goodell, "You have made threats to keep them from talking to us. You have refused to have them even participate in today's proceedings."
Ginsberg and the NFLPA had asked the NFL to compel several witnesses to appear at the appeal hearing, including Saints head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo.
While the NFL declined to require anyone to attend the hearing, Aiello said the players and their representatives "were free to bring any witnesses of their choosing, including any coaches if they agreed to appear."
Ginsberg further asserted that Williams and Cerullo offered retractions of some of their initial statements to the NFL in the investigation, and that the league has neglected to share that information. Aiello denied such retractions were ever made.
Ginsberg also accused the NFL of distorting evidence introduced at the appeals hearing, including an email from marketing agent Mike Ornstein to Williams, who the NFL says ran a bounty program from 2009 to 2011.
In the email, Ornstein tells Williams he gave him "1,500 last week, I will give you another 1,500 the next four game (sic) and the final 2,000 the last 4." Ginsberg asserts that the NFL included the email as evidence even after Ornstein told Goodell the email related to a Gregg Williams charity.
The NFL declined to comment beyond its assertion in Monday's hearing that the total amount of money the email discusses - $5,000 - matches the amount listed next to Ornstein's name on a note outlining pledges made as "seed money" to a performance incentive pool that rewarded big plays as well as injurious hits.
Ginsberg told the commissioner he imposed a "misplaced punishment" which "cast a shadow not only on Mr. Vilma personally and professionally, but, I dare say, on the NFL and on the office of the commissioner in engaging in these proceedings."
He then concluded his statement by urging Goodell to "rescind any punishment against Mr. Vilma and to apologize in public for what you have done."
Not long after making those statements on the record, Ginsberg, who is also representing Vilma in a separate defamation lawsuit against Goodell in federal court in New Orleans, left the hearing with Vilma in protest, They did not return for an afternoon session.
Later in the hearing, Kessler said the remaining three punished players -- Saints defensive end Will Smith, Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, and linebacker Scott Fujita -- would listen to the remainder of the hearing, but would decline to participate because they believed the proceeding lacked elements required to meet the standard of a "fair hearing" under the NFL's current labor agreement.
"The essence of that hearing contains certain matters that are being denied to the players here," Kessler said. "In particular, we're not being given the opportunity to confront and cross-examine the actual witnesses who have evidence on this."
Kessler made an additional point that the NFL has already stated publicly that Williams, the defensive coordinator, ran the Saints' incentive pool, and that punishing employees for something their employers instructed them to do is "contrary to established legal principles."
The NFL continued its portion of the hearing in which it reviewed evidence against the players.
Goodell did not recuse himself and it did not appear he would consider doing so after league attorney Adolpho Birch responded to Kessler that an arbitrator already ruled Goodell has the authority to hear the appeal.