NEW ORLEANS -- Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue plans to complete all hearings in the bounty probe by Dec. 4 and make a ruling shortly after.
In a document obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, Tagliabue directs the NFL to produce key witnesses in the New Orleans Saints cash-for-hits program, including former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo.
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Four players initially were suspended, but those punishments were vacated. Commissioner Roger Goodell re-issued the suspensions with some modifications, and when the players appealed again, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to oversee the new hearings.
Meanwhile, Saints linebacker Jon Vilma and defensive end Will Smith are still playing pending the outcomes of their appeals.
Even as Tagliabue moves the process forward, a federal judge is still considering arguments by players that Tagliabue should be removed as arbitrator because he is biased in favor of the NFL. Based on the schedule laid out by Tagliabue, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan could choose to rule as early as next week.
For now, only Williams, Cerullo, Vilma, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller are the only scheduled witnesses.
They are scheduled to appear in a series of hearings in Washington D.C. running from Tuesday through Dec. 4. That means Vilma and Smith likely will be available at least for the Saints' next two games against San Francisco this Sunday and at Atlanta on Nov. 29. They could also play at the New York Giants on Dec. 9.
Vitt said after Wednesday's practice that he did not know anything about Tagliabue's schedule and declined comment, saying he's focused on getting ready for the 49ers.
None of the players have served a game of their suspensions yet, though Vilma was barred from attending Saints training camp before Goodell's initial rulings were vacated during Week 1 of the regular season.
Vilma initially was suspended the entire 2012 season and Smith for four games.