Can Panthers conduct a fair investigation of team owner? that depends, experts say

Can Panthers conduct a fair investigation of team owner? that depends, experts say

CHARLOTTE, NC (Gavin Off/The Charlotte Observer) - A day after the Carolina Panthers announced an investigation into their owner, the NFL team is facing questions about how independent that review will be.

A Los Angeles-based law firm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, LLP, will conduct the investigation of owner and founder Jerry Richardson, 81, over allegations of workplace misconduct.

But a limited owner of the Panthers, Erskine Bowles – also a former White House chief of staff – will oversee the probe.

"There are more than a few teams wondering why the Panthers are allowed to investigate themselves," Mike Freeman, a columnist with Bleacher Report, tweeted Saturday.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy had no comment Friday when asked whether the league would launch their own investigation.

Several law and workplace misconduct experts told the Observer that hiring an outside firm is appropriate.

Richardson should have "no input whatsoever and no control" of the investigation, said Chris Swecker, retired FBI assistant director and local attorney.

Swecker also said that Bowles should not be allowed to influence the investigation, either.

"If he simply has the authority to accept the report and decide what kind of action to take, that's a legitimate process," he said. "If he has input into the report, then I call foul. ... The devil is in the details."

Both Swecker and Jim Cooney, a prominent Charlotte defense attorney, said the Panthers did well selecting Bowles, who is also a past UNC system president.

"He's beyond reproach," Cooney said.

"You have to report to someone who can take action," he said. "Obviously that's not Jerry Richardson."

The Panthers did not elaborate on the nature of the complaint against Richardson. They did not say if a current or former employee made the complaint or if there were multiple complaints.

Team spokesman Steven Drummond did not respond to several questions from the Observer, including when the team learned about the allegations, when it hired the law firm and when it made the NFL aware of the complaint. The Observer reported that NFL officials learned of the Panthers' investigation Friday afternoon.

In a statement Friday, Drummond said: "The Carolina Panthers and Mr. Richardson take these allegations very seriously and are fully committed to a full investigation and taking appropriate steps to address and remediate any misconduct. … The entire organization is fully committed to ensuring a safe, comfortable and diverse work environment where all individuals, regardless of sex, race, color, religion, gender, or sexual identity or orientation, are treated fairly and equally. We have work to do to achieve this goal, but we are going to meet it."

Drummond said that law firm officials may be available for an interview this week.

National sports writers, meanwhile, have asked why the NFL hasn't begun its own investigation. The league has investigated alleged misconduct of players, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

Retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner said he could think of three reasons why the team would hire an outside firm to investigate the allegations.

Either the NFL or the team's owner's agreement require an investigation. Or there's a pending civil claim against Richardson. In that case, Boner said, the team could be researching whether it should allow the case to go forward or try to settle.

"You wouldn't do an investigation just to do it," Boner said.

A complaint also could be filed with a government agency, such as the Department of Labor or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Mike Eastman, vice president of public policy for the Center of Workplace Compliance, a nonprofit. Or, Eastman said, it could be filed internally with the Panthers' human resources department.

In either case, hiring an outside agency could reduce the appearance of bias.

"The challenge that (human resources) employees have is dealing with people who are very senior or high performers," Eastman said.

But if you ignore the complaint, he said, "you're operating at your own peril."