WASHINGTON – After years of anguish and trauma, Tiffani A. Johnston said she finally had summoned the courage to speak out.
Sitting in front of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday, Johnston, a former employee of the now-Washington Commanders football team, recounted a dinner she said she once had with team owner Daniel Snyder.
At that dinner, Johnston alleged, Snyder placed his hand on her thigh without consent. She removed it. Fearful of losing her job if she made a scene, Johnston said she couldn’t call out the powerful owner in front of her co-workers.
After dinner, Snyder placed his hand on her lower back as he tried to push her into a limo, Johnston told lawmakers. She said Snyder’s lawyer intervened and stated that the incident was “a bad idea,” which allowed Johnston to slip away.
Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, read a letter from Jason Friedman, a former executive for the Washington team, that corroborated Johnston’s limousine account.
But Snyder issued a statement denying Johnston’s allegations.
“While past conduct at the team was unacceptable, the allegations leveled against me personally in today’s roundtable – many of which are well over 13 years old – are outright lies,” Snyder said.
The account of the dinner represented a new allegation against Snyder and one of many “lessons” Johnston said she learned in her time with the team as a cheerleader and a marketing manager.
She told the panel that she received many other inappropriate comments while on the job and in meetings, including a reference to a pearl necklace, a sexual innuendo unfamiliar to her at the time.
Johnston added that she was encouraged to wear revealing clothing while making important sales pitches to suite-holders and was told to take part in inappropriate stunts.
The National Football League last July fined the team $10 million after a review of the franchise’s workplace culture.
In a statement at that time, Commissioner Roger Goodell “concluded that for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional,” the NFL said.
“Bullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace,” according to the NFL.
As for Johnston’s allegations Thursday, Snyder said in his statement: “I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person.”
“Tanya (Snyder) and I will not be distracted by those with a contrary agenda from continuing with the positive personnel and cultural changes that have been made at the team over the past 18 months, and those that we continue to make both on and off the field,” Snyder said.
Johnston and five other former Washington employees’ testimony came a day after the team rebranded as the Commanders. But it appears the new coat of paint on the sports franchise won’t come close to washing away alleged misconduct.
“It is going to take more than a name change to fix the broken culture,” Maloney said.
The panel’s roundtable sparked controversy among Democrats and Republicans as to whether the allegations against the Commanders, formerly known as the Redskins and until the rebranding The Washington Football Team, are a committee issue — or if they should be addressed in a court of law.
“…Democrats on this committee continue to ignore these and other crises that are impacting Americans’ everyday lives,” said Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the oversight committee. “Democrats instead are holding a roundtable about the work culture in one single private organization.”
But Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, chairman of the oversight panel’s economic and consumer policy subcommittee, said that Congress does play a role.
“The NFL holds itself to a higher standard, yet it repeatedly shirked its responsibility to keep workers safe,” he said. “It is up to Congress to get to the bottom of why.”
Democrats said they empathized with the victims of the alleged sexual misconduct.
“I have a 22-year-old and an 18-year-old daughter. My 22-year-old daughter is embarking on the very career path now that you young women described at the outset of your careers,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, told the witnesses. “And you put fear in my heart, for her and my younger daughter.”
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, was not in attendance at the hearing because it conflicted with his responsibilities as vice-chair of the Small Business Committee.
“The roundtable was important as it adds another perspective to the controversy,” Mfume said in a statement. “I am fully supportive of whatever direction Chairwoman Maloney chooses to pursue next.”
Krishnamoorthi said he hoped his colleagues could find common ground. But he also signaled that the Democratic majority wants to delve deeper into the work culture at Washington’s NFL franchise.
“Today is the beginning, not the end,” Krishnamoorthi said.
This article originally was published on CNSMaryland.org.