Sunday, March 9, 2008
NFL, Walsh closing in on deal to discuss taping in Spygate
By Mike Fish
The former New England Patriots video assistant who has told ESPN.com he has potentially damaging information about the team's taping practices is close to an agreement with the National Football League to tell his story.
What, if any, evidence Matt Walsh can provide could be critical in determining the direction of the lingering Spygate saga. Walsh, 31 and now an assistant golf pro on Maui, expressed a willingness to speak to NFL officials about insights into the Pats' taping procedures, although his attorney has tried to keep that from happening until the league agrees to provide Walsh with full indemnification against possible lawsuits.
Walsh told ESPN.com in a January interview that he was not contacted by NFL officials during their investigation of the Patriots' illegal taping practices this past fall. It was only after his name surfaced in the media during Super Bowl week that the league attempted to reach Walsh, who worked seven years with the Patriots before being let go on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2003.
The Spygate story surfaced after another Patriots video assistant, Matt Estrella, was caught taping defensive signals from New York Jets assistant coaches at the season opener in September. Jets coach Eric Mangini and several assistants -- including video director Steve Scarnecchia -- previously worked under Bill Belichick in New England.
"If I had a reason to want to go public or tell a story, I could have done it before this even broke," Walsh told ESPN.com in January. "I could have said everything rather than having Mangini be the one to bring it out."
Both Walsh's attorney, Michael N. Levy, and league spokesman Greg Aiello told ESPN.com Sunday night that significant progress had been made in the lengthy negotiations. "We're close to an agreement," Aiello confirmed.
Michael Levy has been in negotiations for almost a month with Gregg Levy (no relation), an outside counsel for the NFL. Arlen Specter, the Republican leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been investigating the league's handling of the Spygate investigation and has been pushing the NFL to do what is necessary to gain Walsh's cooperation.
Specter has been vocal in expressing his frustration with what he views as stonewalling tactics by the league and its teams. In recent weeks, his staff has approached individuals with the Patriots and the Jets, but the inquiries were turned away by team attorneys who repeatedly said they would not cooperate with Specter's investigation.
The Pennsylvania senator has accused the league of not doing enough to gain Walsh's cooperation. Specter doesn't know what information or materials Walsh might have, but he told ESPN.com recently that he wants to be present when Walsh is questioned "because a witness's testimony can be shaded or molded by who questions him first."
The pressure brought on the league by Specter appeared to be paying off Sunday night.
"I have consistently asked the NFL to provide appropriate legal protections for Mr. Walsh," said Michael Levy, a white-collar crime specialist with Washington-based firm McKee Nelson, in a statement. "In recent discussions I have had with the league's lawyer, we have made substantial progress toward this end, and I am hopeful that we will be able to craft an agreement with the necessary legal protections so Mr. Walsh can come forward with the truth."
The league issued a statement Sunday night, saying: "Our counsel and Mr. Walsh's attorney have been engaged in a serious effort for some time now to reach an agreement that would permit Mr. Walsh to come forward. In the last seven days, the lawyers have had intensive and constructive discussions regarding some new and promising approaches. They have made substantial progress toward an agreement that will allow Mr. Walsh to be interviewed. Both sides are optimistic that any remaining issues can be addressed successfully and they are committed to reaching a full agreement as promptly as possible."
The two sides, however, were at a stalemate regarding the legal protection last week. None of the NFL proposals, including one received by Michael Levy on Feb. 29, afforded full indemnification. Presumably, Specter turned up the heat in recent days by again suggesting that the league didn't want to hear what Walsh had to say and publicly asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to release correspondence between the attorneys.
Ever since Walsh's name surfaced, the league has minimized his significance to Spygate while continuing to hit on the theme that the matter already had been thoroughly investigated. As the story has lingered, the league has revealed that Belichick's questionable taping practices date back to when he became the Patriots' head coach in 2000, though a former Cleveland Browns video assistant told ESPN.com that that team also taped defensive signals -- although not from the sideline -- under Belichick when he coached there in the '90s.
The league has made efforts to learn more about Walsh, the potential whistle-blower. Brian Hamilton, golf pro at a club on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, said a former FBI agent paid a visit a week after the Super Bowl to inquire about Walsh, who was an assistant at Eastward Ho Country Club after leaving the Patriots.
Hamilton identified the investigator as Dick Farley, who he said talked about being with Patriots owner Bob Kraft as he prepared to go down on the field before the New York Giants' last-minute heroics won the Super Bowl in Phoenix last month.
"He was trying to find out if, in fact, Matt had worked here," Hamilton said. "Which he did. And it was, 'Any issues, any problems, can you tell me about him?' It sounded like they were trying to get some information. I don't know whether they were trying to get some dirt on him. That was the extent of it.
"Of course, Matt was fine. He was a good employee. He worked just in the bag room and outside services. So we didn't have any problems at all with Matt. That was a nonstory here."
The story now is what evidence, if any, Walsh has about Spygate.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.