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NFL attorney: Bounty sanctions justified

This Dec. 19, 2009 file photo shows New

This Dec. 19, 2009 file photo shows New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith on the bench during an NFL football game in New Orleans. Smith is one of four players punished for participating in a pay-for-pain bounty system. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling was announced May 2, 2012. Credit: AP

Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor and New York-based attorney hired by the NFL to review its case involving the Saints' prohibited bounty program from 2009-11, said Thursday that there was overwhelming evidence that merited the strong sanctions imposed by commissioner Roger Goodell.

Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season, and three other players from those teams were given lesser suspensions as a result of their participation in the program, which paid players to knock opponents out of games. In addition to the players, Goodell also suspended former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, head coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games.

"I reviewed all the evidence, and the factual basis for the sanctions is quite strong," White told reporters on a conference call. "At this point, it's undisputed that this pay-for-performance bounty program existed."

White, formerly the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and now chairwoman of the litigation department for the New York-based firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, said the league handled the investigation appropriately and sent the proper message by handing down stiff penalties.

"Player participation is prohibited," she said. "You can't take a non-contract bonus for any performance on the field. This particular program has been undisputed. This program included rewards for plays such as 'cart-offs' and 'knockouts.' It's a rare situation where you have multiple independent sources with firsthand knowledge. It's an unusually strong record on which the commissioner acted."

In addition to Vilma, former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Packers, was suspended eight games; Saints defensive end Will Smith was given a four-game suspension, and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Browns, was suspended three games. All are expected to appeal the penalties.

White acknowledged she was paid by the NFL, but said she was asked to provide an "independent review of the evidence and the process in order to ensure that there was strong evidence to support and that the process was thorough and fair."

Attorney Richard Smith of Fullbright & Jaworski, an international law firm hired by the NFLPA to represent the players linked to the alleged bounty program, said White offered little to bolster the NFL's case. Two of the players -- Vilma and Smith -- have denied a bounty program existed, and the union contends the NFL has not offered sufficient evidence of the program.

"I was at the meeting with the NFL's lead investigators in March. She was not there," Smith said of White. "Anyone, especially former prosecutors like both of us, know that what the league provided could never be called 'substantial evidence' of player participation in a pay-to-injure program. Worse yet, Mary Jo provided nothing new or compelling today beyond another press briefing. My guess is that a veteran FBI agent like Joe Hummel would agree as well."

Hummel was involved in the probe, but has since left the NFL. The league said Hummel accepted a position at a private security firm, and that his resignation was delayed until the Saints' investigation was completed.

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