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Dan Snyder's ownership of the Washington Commanders is under the scanner


A year-long battle among billionaires, sealed motions in federal court, a criminal inquiry - a new investigation by ESPN points to anger and infighting as Dan Snyder seeks to end his ownership of his NFL franchise. ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta joins us now with the details. Thanks for being with us.

DON VAN NATTA: My pleasure.

RASCOE: So Snyder owns the Washington Commanders, and he's looking to sell the team for up to $7 billion. But as you report, like, he's been profiting from the team far over his ownership stake and salary. Can you describe what you found?

VAN NATTA: Well, we discovered an NFL arbitration petition that was filed in 2020. I got my hands on a copy of it. It's a confidential petition. And in that petition, Snyder's three former billionaire partners allege that Snyder, for years, was using the Washington Commanders as his personal piggy bank. Those are their words that they used against Snyder in an arbitration that the NFL did. One of the things that they allege is that Snyder paid himself $4.5 million to put the team's logo on his personal jet. He called it an advertising fee.

And really, the biggest finding is a $55 million credit line that the partners allege Snyder took out with Bank of America without their knowledge or approval in December of 2018. And they - the partners wanted the NFL to do something about it. But the NFL did nothing about any of these allegations, instead shut down the arbitration, moved it to mediation. And within a few months, the three billionaire partners were bought out by Dan Snyder.

RASCOE: Doesn't Dan Snyder and these other guys - don't they have a lot of money anyway? Why do they need extra money?

VAN NATTA: They do (laughter).

RASCOE: Like, don't you make a lot of money owning a football team?

VAN NATTA: They do. That's a very good question. The partners own 40% of the team. So their objection was that Snyder was doing things, like taking on new debt, without their permission. It turns out in this petition we discover, that the team - which is ranked dead last, by the way, in local team revenues and in attendance - was cash poor. So Snyder was finding different ways, they allege, to finance his lavish lifestyle through the team.

RASCOE: So now you saw these arbitration documents. Like, was there evidence that you saw beyond that? Or how certain are you about these allegations that are being made against Snyder?

VAN NATTA: Well, there's a lot of certainty to what we have because we don't only have the former partners' petition, but we have a lot of documentation that the partners' lawyers attached to the petition, including bank statements, bank emails, where bank officials from Bank of America were asking for some proof that this $55 million credit line had been approved by the three partners. It's literally a board resolution - a resolution showing the board of directors in which the partners sat on had approved this $55 million loan. We have a letter from Snyder's own lawyers that say there was never a board resolution. And so now there's federal prosecutors in Virginia investigating this matter - literally bank fraud - to see if some bank fraud had been committed by Snyder or other members of the Commanders.

RASCOE: So what do Snyder and the NFL have to say about all this?

VAN NATTA: Snyder says, through his lawyer, that they're cooperating with the prosecutors in Virginia. John Brownlee, the counsel for the Commanders, declined to answer any of my questions about the $55 million credit line. The NFL gave us a pretty lengthy statement that took us step-by-step through the process, but, again, did not address specifically questions about Roger Goodell's decision, as well as the NFL arbitrator, to not investigate these allegations made by the three former partners to Snyder.

RASCOE: What do you know about how Snyder's fellow team owners are reacting? They're not competitors. They are a part of this same overall enterprise that is the NFL or, you know, the same cartel - the same - you know, the same group.

VAN NATTA: Snyder has run out of friends among the ownership group. They're embarrassed by the nonstop negative headlines that have come out since the summer of 2020 about the toxic workplace culture, about allegations of sexual misconduct and also many allegations, including the ones we reported about, financial - alleged financial misconduct. They're hoping that Snyder will sell the team and just move on. But if he doesn't, certainly an option they have is to take a vote and force him out.

RASCOE: That's ESPN's Don Van Natta. Thank you so much for joining us.

VAN NATTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.