Virginia lawmakers reject efforts to tie football stadium deal to Commanders probe

By: - February 14, 2022 6:06 pm

Washington Commanders co-owners Dan and Tanya Snyder pose for a photo with former team members during the announcement of the Washington Football Team’s name change to the Washington Commanders at FedExField on Feb. 2, 2022, in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Virginia lawmakers writing legislation that could help bring a Washington Commanders football stadium to Northern Virginia have resisted multiple attempts to tie the deal to investigations into the conduct of team owner Dan Snyder.

A congressional committee has urged the National Football League to do more to hold the franchise accountable after several women complained of a toxic workplace culture, including Capitol Hill testimony from a former team employee who says Snyder sexually harassed her at a work dinner. Snyder has denied the accusation, but the NFL has said it will launch a new, independent investigation after failing to fully disclose the results of an earlier probe conducted by lawyer Beth Wilkinson. 

The new developments have fueled speculation about whether Snyder could be forced to sell the team, a possibility Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, raised on the floor of the House of Delegates Monday as he spoke against a bill to create a new state authority to help finance a stadium’s construction. The bill passed the House in a 62-37 vote Monday, and a different version appears likely to pass the state Senate later this week.

On Friday, Simon tried to insert language saying the bill wouldn’t take effect until the NFL releases the results of Wilkinson’s earlier investigation and produces 2,100 documents requested by the U.S. House’s Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“We need to know what went on, what kind of sexual misconduct took place at Redskins park in Ashburn, Virginia. We need to know what happened to these women,” Simon said. “… All this amendment does is say that authority can’t go forward until we get the transparency and the insight into who it is we’re going into business with.”

Simon’s amendment failed on a 46-51 vote, with almost all Democrats joining him and nearly every Republican opposing it.

A Commanders spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, the bill’s sponsor, said the details of the legislation will be worked out over the next several weeks, allowing ample time for the General Assembly to react if the need arises.

“I feel fairly confident that we’ve got this report coming from the NFL,” Knight said. “If anything is found in that, then it probably will be a civil or a criminal proceeding and it would go through the courts.”

A similar effort met the same fate in a Democratic-led state Senate committee last week when Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, suggested an amendment to require transparency in investigations into the team’s culture.

“When you go into business with a billionaire and you’re forgoing up to a billion dollars in tax revenue, I just think it’s appropriate to do due diligence rather than have things drip out month after month, week after week, year after year,” Ebbin said, referring to a plan to allow tax revenues from the potential stadium development to pay off up to $1 billion in bonds issued by the proposed authority.

Ebbin’s amendment failed without a recorded vote after no one else on the Senate Finance Committee offered a second to his proposed motion.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, a chief sponsor of the Senate’s stadium bill, said he had no problem with the NFL looking into the allegations against Snyder.

“But it does not belong in this bill,” he told the committee.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, concurred, saying he felt it would be “totally inappropriate” for the legislature to start getting involved in investigations into potential business partners.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who helped form the General Assembly’s “Redskins Pride Caucus” in 2014 in defense of the team’s former name, said lawmakers should focus only on the details of the potential stadium deal.

“We didn’t investigate Jeff Bezos when we did a deal with Amazon,” he said. “We didn’t investigate anybody. This is a business transaction.”

The Commanders, which unveiled their new team name this month after two seasons as the Washington Football Team, are scheduled to play at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. until 2027. For years, the team has been exploring possible options for a new stadium in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

Passage of the Virginia bill wouldn’t guarantee a stadium in Virginia, and details of the state’s offer to the team likely won’t be finalized until later in the legislative session.

Saslaw said the development envisioned in talks with the team is “almost a mini-city,” with a stadium surrounded by other amenities like hotels, restaurants and a concert venue.

“They’re no longer building stadiums that are surrounded by a huge parking lot,” he said at last week’s committee hearing. “They’re becoming entertainment complexes.”

Over a 30-year lease, he said, the planned development would generate an estimated $153 million per year in tax revenues. Of that, Saslaw said, $60 million would go to the state, $59 million would go to the local government and $34 million would go to the authority to help pay off the bond financing.

There would be no tax hikes to pay for a stadium, he said, and taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook to pay off the bonds if the deal doesn’t go as planned.

“The state is not backing the bonds,” Saslaw said. “It’s forbidden in the bill.”

Both versions of the bill allow the team to nominate four members of the authority’s nine-member board.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.