The NFL fined Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson a league-record $2.75 million Thursday after a months-long investigation substantiated claims of sexual and racial misconduct by the team's founder.
Independent investigator Mary Jo White's review of Richardson found nothing to discredit the claims of former Panthers employees, while also uncovering "similar matters that have not been the subject of public discussion," according to the NFL release.
Sports Illustrated reported in December that Richardson had made "significant" financial settlements with at least four former employees following sexual and racial misconduct claims. The same day the SI story broke, Richardson announced plans to sell the team.
White's investigation also found:
▪ No other Panthers employee was alleged to have engaged in misconduct, "and the review did not discover evidence of similar conduct by other employees."
(Former assistant coach Curtis Fuller resigned in May as a result of inappropriate electronic communication with female staff members. The Observer reported the volume of communications, rather than their content, was the central issue.)
▪ The team never reported the claims or the financial settlements Richardson made to former employees to the league, which didn't learn of the payments until the SI story was published. The Panthers' limited partners also were unaware of Richardson's misconduct and the settlements, according to the league.
White, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chair, shared her findings with new Panthers owner David Tepper, whose $2.275 billion purchase was approved by NFL owners in May. The sale is expected to close in the next two weeks.
The $2.75 million fine is the largest in NFL history, nearly tripling the previous high of $1 million. The NFL said most of Richardson's fine money will go to organizations that address race and gender-based issues, including the Charlotte-based Beauty for Ashes Ministry, which provides support to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other trauma.
The league announced in December it was taking over the Panthers investigation after SI reported the allegations of inappropriate sexual comments and conduct by Richardson, who also reportedly directed a racial slur at an African-American scout.
The allegations against Richardson include making inappropriate comments on "Jeans Day," encouraging female staffers to get manicures and pedicures, and sending handwritten "suggestive notes," according to SI. In one of the notes provided to SI by a former female employee, Richardson wrote: "If I could ... I'd pamper you more. Rub your feet. Shave your legs. Put lotion on your body — etc, etc."
White said her investigation included interviews with Panthers executives and current and former employees, and an analysis of documents, electronic records and other information.
In addition to her findings, White made several recommendations to commissioner Roger Goodell, including:
▪ Prohibiting the use of non-disclosure agreements when such NDAs limit the reporting of potential violations or the cooperation in league investigations under the personal conduct policy.
▪ Specifically requiring that workplace misconduct claims be reported to the NFL office.
▪ Establishing a hotline or other system to allow league or team employees to report workplace misconduct claims confidentially.
One of the Panthers employees who received a settlement from the Panthers called the NFL's investigation of Richardson “a farce” in a series of letters she wrote for SI in April.
The ex-employee — who was not identified — said she was willing to cooperate with White. But the woman’s attorney was told by White that neither White nor the league could protect her if she breached her non-disclosure agreement that was part of her financial settlement.
The woman also claims Richardson’s personal attorneys informed her lawyer that the former team owner had no “intention of turning over any information of signed NDAs” to the league, and she was warned she would be in violation of the NDAs if she provided information to investigators, according to the SI report.
In a statement released by the team Thursday, the Panthers said they cooperated with the investigation and also have taken steps to address any future misconduct.
"While the investigation has concluded, we remain committed to improving all facets of our organization and fostering an environment in which all of our staff can trust they are safe and valued," the team's statement said.
White also noted the Panthers’ enhanced anti-harassment and discrimination policy, as well as the workplace training the team has initiated.
Goodell will require the Panthers to report by the end of this year on the team’s internal workplace policies and procedures that address claims of racial discrimination, sexual harassment or related issues.