NFL Hires Firm to Investigate Group; League Gets Help in Background Checks of Lead Investors Seeking to Buy Redskins

The National Football League has hired a Washington-based private investigator known for probing the private lives of political candidates to help league officials make background checks of the lead investors in a group seeking to purchase the Washington Redskins and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, the league confirmed yesterday.

League spokesman Greg Aiello said Terry Lenzner’s Investigative Group International will assist in the examinations of New York real estate mogul Howard Milstein, his brother, Edward, and Bethesda businessman Daniel M. Snyder. Aiello said this is not the first time the league has used an outside firm for help in an investigation, although it is the first time it has hired Lenzner’s firm.

“We’re performing normal due diligence,” Aiello said. He declined to comment on why the league selected Lenzner.

The NFL Policy and Procedures Manual contains a section on the sellers and buyers of clubs that states: “In conducting its investigation and evaluation, the NFL and its member clubs will consider all pertinent information. The ultimate decision on the purchaser’s application for membership in the NFL will be based on the membership’s good-faith assessment of whether the proposed ownership is likely to result in a successful club operation with acceptable ownership and management operating in compliance with all the league rules and policies and in the best interests of the league.”

Lenzner did not return two telephone messages left at his firm’s headquarters yesterday.

Milstein and Snyder did not return calls left at their offices requesting comment.

Lenzner’s firm has a client list including President Clinton and boxer Mike Tyson.

The disclosure of Lenzner’s role in investigating the Milsteins and Snyder came a day after several sources close to the situation said NFL officials are examining whether Howard Milstein, who would be the team’s principal owner, has enough cash available to satisfy the league’s team owners. At least 23 of the 30 other owners must approve the Milstein-Snyder group’s proposed $800 million purchase of the team and the stadium (the Redskins will not vote).

The NFL’s review of the proposed deal is in its sixth week since the Milstein-Snyder group reached an agreement to buy the team from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke. An initial look at the proposed deal by the league’s finance committee, a panel of eight owners that makes recommendations about the sales of teams, already has gone beyond a financial review of the Milstein-Snyder bid. It has included an examination of whether the trustees of Cooke’s estate conducted their sale of the team fairly.In addition the panel has inquired in detail about whether Redskins President John Kent Cooke, son of the late owner, was given adequate opportunity to purchase the team.

Attorneys for the Cooke estate have said the Milstein-Snyder bid complies with all NFL rules and regulations. And officials of Societe General, Milstein’s lender for the transaction, have said Milstein has the money to buy and support the Redskins and the stadium.

Phil Stern, a Los Angeles photographer, said this week he was interviewed Monday by a private investigator hired by the NFL about a lawsuit he filed against Snyder a decade ago, when Snyder was publishing a now-defunct campus magazine.

The investigator, Robert J. McNeal, said he was making a “completely routine” inquiry into Snyder’s business past. McNeal said he had gone to meet with Stern after learning that Stern had sued Snyder for money he was supposed to have received in exchange for allowing Snyder’s magazine to use one of his photos.

“Anybody that gets involved with team ownership, we looked at their background, and they know it,” said McNeal, a former FBI agent who runs an investigative firm in Los Angeles that the league retains.

The league’s approval process includes a would-be owner filling out a standard form that details employment history, a listing of four to five business references, social references, the buyer’s banks and other information, including interviews, according to sources familiar with the process.

The NFL’s security director usually conducts a public records check, helped by security staffers in each of the league’s 31 cities. The check also includes research into court and police records to ensure the owner does not have a criminal background or has been involved in gambling.

The Milsteins’ and Snyder’s background forms were delivered to the NFL several weeks prior to their Jan. 10 purchase of the team from the Cooke estate, according to a source close to the estate. Toward the end of the sale process, according to the attorneys for the Cooke estate, the league was advised who the likely winners would be and was asked by the estate to begin its review process, according to sources close to the estate. Investigators for the league met with Snyder and his father in early January for lengthy interviews, according to sources

Lenzner was hired by Clinton’s private lawyers to investigate who was financing Paula Jones’s sexual misconduct lawsuit against the president. He became a figure in the Monica Lewinsky controversy when he was accused of investigating two Republican lawyers on Clinton’s behalf. Lenzner was brought before a grand jury by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to explain his work on Clinton’s behalf.

Lenzner, a 59-year-old lawyer, has defended “opposition research” — a term used to describe the process of seeking potentially damaging information about adversaries — that his firm has conducted for candidates such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Monks, a Republican Senate candidate from Maine, according to news reports.

The league’s finance committee of eight owners is tentatively planning to meet by telephone next week to discuss the Milstein-Snyder proposal. The league has said it will probably vote on the proposed deal at it owners’ meeting in mid-March.