Jonathan Vilma, the New Orleans Saints player fighting a full-season suspension for his alleged role in a bounty-hunting scheme, asked a federal judge to disqualify ex-National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue from acting as an appellate arbitrator in the dispute.
Vilma’s lawyers told U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan in New Orleans in court papers filed yesterday that Tagliabue has a conflict because he is associated with the same law firm that is defending incumbent NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whom Vilma sued for defamation earlier this year.
Vilma and three other NFL players who are challenging related punishments handed down by Goodell this month filed papers with Berrigan on Oct. 15 arguing he is biased against them. The league announced Tagliabue’s appointment as appellate arbitrator four days later.
“Goodell has now perpetuated, and indeed exacerbated, the defective process by appointing a hearing officer who could not be more conflicted,” Vilma’s attorneys said in yesterday’s filing.
The NFL has said about two dozen Saints players, led by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 at a time from 2009 to 2011 for targeting opponents such as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.
Head Coach Sean Payton was barred for a year and Williams was suspended indefinitely.
The National Football League Players Association yesterday made a similar filing on behalf of the other three players, the Saints’ Will Smith and former teammates Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, asserting the commissioner “had no intention of turning the arbitration over to an impartial decision-maker.”
The players’ union asked Berrigan to order the parties to agree upon a neutral arbitrator within seven days or appoint one herself.
Hargrove faces a seven-game ban, Smith four, and Fujita one, under the punishments Goodell imposed after a separate panel of arbitrators ruled he previously exceeded his authority when he initially punished them for taking money outside of their contracts.
It said the commissioner could punish the players for conduct detrimental to the game.
“We have advised the union that we believe there is no basis on which former Commissioner Tagliabue should recuse himself and we will oppose any request that he do so,” Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the New York-based league, said in an e-mailed statement.
“There is no question that Commissioner Tagliabue is fully qualified to hear these appeals,” and his appointment is consistent with the terms of the parties’ collective-bargaining agreement, Aiello said.
Berrigan has ordered the 32-team league to file its responding papers no later than Oct. 26.
Tagliabue is senior counsel at the Washington-based law firm Covington & Burling LLP.
The case is Vilma v. Goodell, 12-cv-1283, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).