METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma says he's disappointed that the new schedule for bounty hearings virtually prevents him from being able to personally confront his accusers.
Vilma says he wanted to be present for witness interviews with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, who assisted the NFL's investigation into the Saints' cash-for-hits pool.
According to documents obtained this week by the Associated Press, the NFL is responsible for producing Cerullo in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, the same day the Saints play in Atlanta. Williams is scheduled to appear Friday morning.
The schedule was set by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to oversee the latest round of appeal hearings in the matter.
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Vilma says he appreciates that Tagliabue is directing the NFL to produce witnesses after the league initially resisted. Yet he cannot help but wonder whether the hearing schedule was designed to discourage him from attempting to attend the hearing sessions featuring the cross-examination of Williams and Cerullo.
"The witness part is good. I think it's [unfortunate] that I'm not going to be there for Cerullo and Williams when they testify," Vilma said. "These people are why I was [initially] suspended for a year, so I would love to be there. I don't know why [Tagliabue] did that, but whatever."
Even as Tagliabue moves the process forward, a federal judge is still considering arguments by players that Tagliabue should be removed as arbitrator because he is biased in favor of the NFL. Based on the schedule laid out by Tagliabue, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan could choose to rule as early as next week.
Vilma and saints defensive end Will Smith were among four players initially suspended for various lengths, but those punishments were vacated. Commissioner Roger Goodell re-issued the suspensions with some modifications, and when the players appealed again, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to oversee the new hearings. Vilma and Smith are still playing pending the outcomes of their appeals and have not served a game of their suspensions.
For now, Williams, Cerullo, Vilma, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller are the only scheduled witnesses. They are scheduled to appear in a series of hearings in Washington D.C. and New Orleans from Tuesday through Dec. 4.
Tagliabue wrote in the document that he expects to rule shortly after the last hearing, which could potentially lead to Vilma and Smith having to serve suspensions late in the regular season. Smith is fighting a four-game suspension. The two other players punished are former Saints: Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now on injured reserve, and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Players have argued that Cerullo was the NFL's primary source of information about the Saints' performance pool. They've also argued that Cerullo's credibility is in question because he was fired by the club after the 2009-10 season and he had accused the team of preventing him from getting a job on another NFL coaching staff.
The NFL investigation concluded that Saints players were rewarded for hits that knocked targeted opposing players out of games from 2009-2011. The league said there was evidence that the Saints placed bounties on star quarterbacks, including Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers.
Saints players and coaches have acknowledged they had a pool that paid rewards for big plays such as interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks and big hits, similar to programs other teams have had across the league for generations. However, they say no one ever intended to injure an opposing player.