The congressional investigation of the NFL’s Washington Commanders is awash in accusations of political bias after lobbyists, who are linked to a campaign to oust team owner Dan Snyder, solicited money for a Democrat spearheading the inquiry.
Government watchdogs say Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois may have violated House ethics rules by agreeing to appear at a fundraiser hosted by the lobbying duo Mike and Tom Manatos. The fundraiser was pitched as an opportunity to huddle with Mr. Krishnamoorthi and discuss how the congressional investigation could be used to force out Mr. Snyder.
“It’s problematic under ethics rules,” said Kendra Arnold, executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. “Any time we see an overlap between congressional duties and political advancement, fundraising or personal financial interests, it raises conflict of interest concerns.”
Mr. Krishnamoorthi has played a leading role in investigating Mr. Snyder and the Commanders as a senior member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. House ethics rules prohibit members from accepting gifts or campaign donations if they are directly linked to official legislative business.
Good government groups say Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s agreement to appear at the fundraiser could violate those guidelines. As such, they are urging the House Ethics Committee to investigate.
“This appears to be either bribery or illegal gratuity and should immediately be investigated,” said Matt Buckham, the founder of the American Accountability Foundation. “A sitting congressman receives campaign contributions for political favors — officials go to jail for activities like this.”
The Manatos brothers initially pitched the fundraiser to donors last month, as first reported by Politico, as an opportunity to discuss with Mr. Krishnamoorthi the ongoing investigation into the team.
“The one person in Washington who may have found a path to getting rid of Snyder [as the team’s owner] is my good friend and Chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi,” Mike Manatos wrote in an email to attendees. “Tom and I hope you can join us on May 10 as a small group of us meets with Raja to discuss his efforts.”
Mr. Krishnamoorthi, who serves as chairman of the oversight panel’s subcommittee on the economy and consumer policy, said he was unaware of the overture to donors on his behalf.
“As was clearly stated and reported, Congressman Krishnamoorthi had no knowledge that a participant in this meeting mentioned the Commanders’ investigation,” said Brian Kaissi, a spokesperson for Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s campaign. “As soon as he was apprised, he immediately canceled the event.”
The Manatos brothers back up the claim. Mike Manatos told Mediate that the brothers’ firm, Manatos & Manatos, conducted the outreach for the event without input from Mr. Krishnamoorthi.
“In the 85 years and three generations that my family has been working with the federal government, when we find a senator or [House] member who is doing work that we think is in the best interest of our country and our community, we are happy to try to help that policymaker remain in office,” Mike Manatos said.
Mike Manatos and his father, Andrew, donated $3,000 to Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s campaign from 2017 to 2020. They have made similar donations to other members of the oversight committee.
Serious questions remain about the event and Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s conduct. Even if unaware of the outreach efforts, Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s staff would have had to agree to hold the fundraiser in the first place.
That poses an ethical quandary given that the Manatos brothers have a long history of opposing Mr. Snyder.
In 2017, Tom Manatos launched a website dedicated to pushing negative content about Mr. Snyder. One section of the site encourages visitors to contact their local and state elected officials to express opposition to a new stadium for the team as long as Mr. Snyder is the owner.
“The ethics rules are broader than most people think,” Mrs. Arnold said. “They’re designed not only to stop individuals from profiting off financial interests but also to keep public confidence in our congressional members.”
Even if no ethics rules were broken, watchdogs say, it would be inappropriate for Mr. Krishnamoorthi to continue his involvement in the Commanders probe.
“When it just looks like you might be doing something wrong, that’s almost equal to as if you were,” Mrs. Arnold said. “Since this has been brought up and there could be some conflict, it would be best practice for him not to comment on the topic moving forward.”
Complicating matters is the timing of the fundraiser. Last month, Mr. Krishnamoorthi sent a 20-page letter to the Federal Trade Commission demanding an investigation of unsubstantiated accusations of fleecing season ticket holders and the National Football League.
The letter was written shortly before the Manatos brothers began sending invites to the fundraiser. An individual who saw the emailed invitation told The Washington Times that it specifically referenced Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s letter.
Ethics watchdogs say it could be a major problem if Mr. Krishnamoorthi agreed to the fundraiser before the letter was sent.
“The timeline is somewhat important,” said Mrs. Arnold. “We would want to know if sending the letter was related in any way to the promise of a fundraiser.”
Neither Mr. Krishnamoorthi nor the Manatos brothers were willing to answer questions on the timeline of the fundraiser. The congressman’s campaign, however, pushed back on the calls for transparency, saying they were not needed.
“There is no basis for either an Ethics Committee investigation or recusal,” said Mr. Kaissi. “The only story here is the length that Mr. Snyder and his friends are willing to go to stop an investigation that has revealed so much wrongdoing within his organization.”
Mr. Krishnamoorthi’s campaign also said it would not accept any “contributions from Mr. Manatos or anyone else related to this event.” It refused to answer whether that would extend to returning the donations made by Mike and Andrew Mantos between 2017 and 2020.
House Republicans say the fundraiser snafu is the latest sign that the congressional investigation into the Commanders is a political exercise.
“I don’t know if you could have picked a more anti-Snyder individual to headline the fundraiser,” said a Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity to discuss ethics issues involving a fellow lawmaker. “It certainly raises big red flags.”
“I don’t root for the team, but I’d say by the looks of things every Democrat on the oversight committee must be a die-hard Dallas fan,” the lawmaker added, referencing the long-running rivalry between the Commanders and the Dallas Cowboys.
House Democrats began investigating the Commanders and Mr. Snyder last fall after a renewed outcry that the NFL failed to release a written report of its inquiry into the team’s workplace.
As part of the committee’s inquiry, House Democrats have received hundreds of thousands of documents from the league and the team. Sexual misconduct accusations against Mr. Snyder also surfaced when former employee Tiffani Johnston told members of Congress that the billionaire touched her thigh inappropriately at a work dinner.
Mr. Snyder has vigorously denied the claims. The NFL is conducting a separate investigation into the matter. The Washington Commanders declined to comment.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the oversight committee, last month urged Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat, to end the investigation. Mr. Comer lambasted the committee’s Democrats for targeting one particular organization with a “one-sided approach” that relies heavily on testimony from a disgruntled former employee.
Ms. Maloney has defended the investigation, as has Mr. Krishnamoorthi. They say the inquiry is not targeted at one company, but rather professional football as a whole.
“In every other instance when they had to investigate, they published the results,” Mr. Krishnamoorthi said of the NFL. “In this case, they did not, so it sends a strong message to people like me, just asking the question why. Like, ‘Why did that not happen? Is this industry being run properly?’”