Panthers made pacts with 4 workers over inappropriate Richardson conduct, report says

CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person and Rick Rothacker/ The Charlotte Observer) - Sports Illustrated reported Sunday that at least four former Carolina Panthers employees have received "significant" monetary settlements as a result of inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by owner Jerry Richardson.

The conduct, Sports Illustrated reported, included "sexually suggestive language and behavior, and on at least one occasion directing a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout."

SI said the settlements featured non-disclosure agreements forbidding the parties from discussing the matter.

The Panthers on Friday made the surprising announcement that the team was investigating Richardson for allegations of workplace misconduct. On Sunday, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said it will take over the probe after questions about whether one of the team's minority partners should oversee the review.

Team spokesman Steven Drummond told the Observer he cannot comment on the SI report. NFL spokesman McCarthy says the league has no comment on the specific allegations of misconduct by Richardson laid out in the SI story.

Richardson was not available for comment. Mark Richardson, his son and a member of the ownership group, did not immediately return a call from the Observer. Charlotte businessman Cameron Harris, another limited partner, said he could not comment because of the pending investigation.

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Richardson, 81, was at the Panthers' game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, seated in he owner's box, with his wife at his side. He has owned the team since it began play as an NFL expansion franchise in the 1995 season and led the ownership group that brought professional football to the Carolinas.

Before the game, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told a team reporter that the team discussed the investigation into Richardson. "One of the things we talked about is 'you respect who he is, ...who he has been for you, more so than anything else.'"

It's not clear yet what ramifications the league investigation could have for Richardson and the Panthers franchise, which was valued most recently by Forbes magazine at $2.3 billion. Marketing experts said it could spur some backlash among fans and sponsors at a time when the NFL has already faced scrutiny for falling TV ratings and controversial protests by players over racial inequality during the playing of the national anthem.

The allegations against Richardson are also the latest to target a prominent figure in entertainment, politics, media and sports in recent weeks for sexual misconduct in the workplace.

RELATED: Charlotte attorney shares expertise on legitimacy of investigation into Panther owner Jerry Richardson's workplace conduct

The original investigation was to be conducted by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, LLP, an international law firm based in Los Angeles. Erskine Bowles, a limited owner with the team and a former White House Chief of Staff, was overseeing the probe.

On Sunday, the NFL said it would hire an independent law firm to lead the investigation.

According to SI, Richardson's accusers described a similar behavior pattern that they said created a hostile work environment.

The conduct, according to SI, included comments about female employees' appearance on "Jeans Day" at the office, notes accompanied by small cash payments with encouragement to use the money for massages or dresses and even requests by Richardson asking them if he could personally shave their legs. In other instances, Richardson asked female employees to massage his feet, the report said.

Multiple sources also told SI that Richardson directed a racial slur at an African-American scout for the Panthers, who left he team this year.

Sports Illustrated, citing unnamed sources, also reported that Drummond, the team spokesman, and Richard Thigpen, the Panthers' general counsel, contacted past and present employees to encourage them not to speak when the team learned the outlet was investigating Richardson. Asked to comment on that claim, Drummond said: "Not at this time."

A native Carolinian who is the only current owner to have also played in the NFL, Richardson began the process of trying to obtain an NFL team for Charlotte in 1987 and was awarded the franchise on Oct. 26, 1993. Richardson is a former wide receiver at Wofford and with the Baltimore Colts who made his money mostly in the restaurant business. He has been the Panthers' majority owner since the day it began play in 1995.

Richardson, who had a heart transplant in 2009, has rarely appeared in public settings in recent years, although he has continued to attend Panthers games. He made headlines in 2009 when his sons, Mark and Jon, both suddenly resigned their team presidencies.

The very public family split meant that the family business was no longer much of a family business. Richardson said in 2009 he and his family owned 48 percent of the team, with the other 52 percent being owned by a group of about a dozen minority partners. He has told city officials he wants the team sold within two years of his death.

It's not clear whether any of the limited partners were aware of the settlements reported on by SI. Charlotte businessman Cameron Harris, one of the limited partners, said he could not comment because of the pending investigation. Bowles did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The original construction of the Panthers' home stadium was privately financed, but in 2013 the Charlotte City Council voted to give the Panthers $87.5 million, of which $75 million would be spent on renovations. In return, the team agreed to remain in Charlotte for at least six years, with penalties if it moves in the four years after that. Britt Clampitt, a city spokeswoman, said the city did not have any comment "as its role is only in assisting with support of the facilities."

During the negotiations with the city, Richardson said he had no plans to move the Panthers, but the team and its representatives hinted other cities would like to host an NFL team. Richardson also told the city he wanted the team sold within two years of his death for tax purposes.

This is a developing story.