NEW ORLEANS — Hearings in the NFL bounty probe of the Saints resumed with witness appearances by former Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress, Saints assistant coach Joe Vitt and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been appointed to oversee the hearings, which he has scheduled to conclude in New Orleans by Tuesday. There were also several days of witness appearances in Washington last week.
Tagliabue also has requested strict confidentiality by those involved. Childress and Vitt honored the request after their appearances.
As Childress left the downtown law office on Monday he said he had “nothing to add” after meeting with the former commissioner.
Vitt also didn’t have much to say, though he spent about five hours at the hearing.
The Saints coach had said previously, including under oath in federal court last summer, that his players never took the field intending to injure an opponent. As he left, Vitt said that testimony “was reiterated.”
Like other witnesses, Vitt said he could not discuss details of the hearing, but added that it was good to see the former commissioner, who he’d met before. Vitt said that they had friendly exchanges, even sharing some old stories.
Vitt then headed back to the Saints’ suburban headquarters to catch up on how practice went.
Tagliabue has informed attorneys representing all parties that he hopes to rule on the appeals of Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith and two other players shortly after the hearings conclude.
Smith, suspended four games, and Vilma, suspended for the entire current season, have been allowed back on the field while their appeals are pending. It is unclear if they will be able to play against the New York Giants on Sunday.
Two former New Orleans players also were banned: Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita had his suspension reduced to one game, while free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove has not played in the NFL this season but faces a two-game suspension if he signs with a team.
The NFL has described Vilma and Smith as ringleaders — and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as being in charge — of a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011.
The league has sworn statements from Williams and former Saints assistant coach Mike Cerullo — who testified last week — saying Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.
Childress had informed the NFL after that game he’d heard from former player Jimmy Kennedy that the Saints had a bounty on Favre. Childress is currently the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator.
The NFL also has identified Kennedy as one of its witnesses, but Kennedy has said the league is lying about his statements. He added that the league irreparably damaged his reputation by its “shoddy, careless, shameful so-called investigation.”
According to the NFL, Kennedy heard about the bounty from Hargrove, who has also denied knowledge of a bounty program.
Tagliabue has insisted that the contents of the appeals process remain private, and all of the hearings have been behind closed doors in private law offices.
Vilma offered a wave and a thumbs-up sign as he walked into the downtown New Orleans law office for Monday’s proceedings. Vitt only joked to several reporters that he sees them “in his dreams” and that they should be at Saints’ practice instead of the law office.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued the initial suspensions, which also included a full-season ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton.
Lawsuits brought by Vilma and the NFL Players Association to challenge Goodell’s handling of the case, including his decision in October to appoint Tagliabue as the arbitrator for the appeals, are pending in federal court in New Orleans.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan gave the parties until Monday to answer questions about whether the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement prevents a commissioner from handing out discipline for legal contact, and whether the CBA’s passages about detrimental conduct are “ambiguous, hence unenforceable.”
The NFLPA responded Monday afternoon, saying the labor agreement does not give the commissioner authority to punish players for legal hits. The union added that if Tagliabue interprets the agreement otherwise, the provisions pertaining to the commissioner’s authority in the CBA would be unenforceable.
In its response to Berrigan’s request, the NFL said players were not punished for on-field actions. The league said the players’ suspensions resulted from meeting or locker room pledges, rewarding injury-causing hits and lying to NFL investigators about the incentive pool.
In March, the NFL announced that its investigation showed the Saints put together a bounty pool of up to $50,000 to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opponents. “Knockouts” were worth $1,500 and “cart-offs” $1,000 — with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs, the league said.
According to the league, the pay-for-pain program was administered by Williams, with Payton’s knowledge. At the time, Williams apologized for his role, saying: “It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it.”
Later that month, Payton became the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason — banned for all of this season without pay — and Williams was suspended indefinitely.