The bounty case definitely isn’t over.
In a new court filing opposing the efforts of Commissioner Roger Goodell to obtain a dismissal of Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s defamation lawsuit, Vilma takes aim at two key factors: the alleged bounty on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner prior to the 2009 NFC divisional playoff game, and the credibility of former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo.
The overriding goal is to persuade Judge Helen Berrigan that Goodell knew the allegation of a bounty on Warner was false, or that Goodell made the statement with reckless disregard as to whether the claim of a Warner bounty was true or false. This enhanced legal standard applies in cases of defamation brought by public figures.
Along the way, Ginsberg calls Goodell’s statements “wanton and malicious,” “fictional,” and “inflammatory,” and Ginsberg writes that Goodell accused Vilma of engaging in “quasi-criminal” behavior.
In making the argument that the case against Goodell should proceed, Vilma’s lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, explains that the NFL’s May 2, 2012 press release states that “multiple independent sources . . . confirmed” that Vilma offered the bounty on Warner. Ginsberg then alleges that, ultimately, the only source was Cerullo. “Even former Saints defensive coordinator Williams, the mastermind of the alleged Bounty Program, does not contend that Vilma put a bounty on Warner,” Ginsberg writes.
The lawyer for Vilma next contends that the league knew or should have realized that Cerullo’s story was false.
“[A]s Goodell well knew,” Ginsberg writes, “Cerullo was fired for his incompetence and repeated and material lies to the Saints which caused him to miss several weeks of the 2009 season.” (Cerullo has denied that he was absent from work, in a recent letter to Tagliabue.)
Here’s the kicker from Ginsberg: “The Saints were so concerned about Cerullo’s stability, as Goodell also knew, that, when Cerullo was terminated, Saints head coach Sean Payton also was forced to obtain police protection at his house for fear that Cerullo would seek some type of retribution.” (Cerullo has denied that he held a grudge against the team.)
Ginsberg likewise points out that Cerullo’s story has changed, arguing that “Goodell was well aware of these inconsistencies during the months before he imposed discipline on Vilma but nonetheless kept polluting Vilma’s reputation publicly with this fictitious allegation.”
The attack on Cerullo includes not only his motives but his accuracy. Ginsberg writes that Cerullo allegedly told NFL investigators in November 2011 that he had taken “detailed notes” about the bounties offered as to Warner. At the hearing before Tagliabue, Cerullo admitted that he made no notes during the defensive team meeting before the game against the Cardinals.
As to the spreadsheet of pledges for the Favre bounty a week later, Cerullo now says the numbers were “inaccurate,” and that “I don’t know what I was trying to do with this document.”
We know what Ginsberg is trying to do with his latest document. He’s trying to show that the league trumped-up its case against Vilma based solely on the testimony of a former Saints employee who is, in Ginsberg’s apparent view, mistaken and/or corrupt. And while Ginsberg continues to push the notion that Vilma didn’t offer $10,000 as to Vikings quarterback Brett Favre (and that, as Tagliabue concluded, if it happened it was simply “talk” and not a real offer), it’s clear that the defamation case against Goodell will be driven by the notion that the league knew or should have known that the allegation of a Warner bounty was false.