January/ February 2014 Smokey and the Bandit

How a secret government sweetheart deal for Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder wrecked a great park ranger’s career.

By Tim Murphy

Little big man: Redskins owner Dan Snyder makes a fortune off his hapless and offensively named team—and he can see the Potomac River from his mansion thanks to a favor from the Bush administration.

There are sports franchise owners who, through civic-mindedness and steely pursuit of victory, win the admiration of their fans. Then there is Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. Since the self-made advertising mogul bought the storied football franchise fourteen years ago, the team has had only two winning seasons, a sorry record widely attributed to Snyder’s penchant for micromanaging coaches and throwing money at expensive past-their-prime veterans rather than finding new talent. Yet that losing record hasn’t kept the billionaire Snyder from reaping record profits by exploiting every conceivable revenue stream—from jacked-up ticket prices to luxury skyboxes for lobbyists to charging fans to watch hitherto free team workouts. He sued a seventy-three-year-old grandmother who, after losing most of her assets in the housing crash, couldn’t afford to keep up payment on her season tickets. And when a Washington City Paper writer protested, Snyder sued him, too.

Two recent events further highlight Snyder’s imperiousness. The first is a renewed chorus of demands by everyone from Native American activists to the D.C. city council that the team change its inherently offensive name—to which Snyder last year responded, “NEVER—you can use caps.”

The second is the settling last fall by the National Park Service (NPS) of a whistleblower complaint over a secret sweetheart deal Snyder extracted nine years ago to give his Maryland home an unobstructed view of the Potomac River. It was a small concession in the grand scheme of things, the kind that the rich and powerful frequently wheedle out of government, especially back then, during the presidency of George W. Bush, when such favors were flowing like booze in a skybox. But its discovery set off a decade-long campaign of bureaucratic retribution over two administrations that nearly sent an innocent man to prison. The story of that little favor wonderfully (if depressingly) encapsulates the essential character of our times, in which average people who play by the rules are made to suffer by the blithe manipulation of those rules by the people at the top.

The tale begins in 2000, when Snyder paid $10 million for a riverside estate in the Washington suburb of Potomac, a posh neighborhood in a posh community typified by the recently deceased gray-haired government worker whose property he had purchased—King Hussein of Jordan. Hussein had outfitted the grounds with a sprawling side house for the servants, in which Snyder would force prospective Redskins hires to stay when they came in for interviews; the maroon-and-yellow basketball court was Snyder’s addition.

It was a nice enough house. The home had a helicopter pad out back and a white colonnade along the porch on a hill a few hundred feet from the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a charming waterway first envisioned by George Washington that, along with a towpath and surrounding forest, is now owned and managed by the NPS. Among Washington’s ruling class, the bluffs flanking the Potomac River northwest of the city are the closest one gets to a penthouse on Central Park, but Snyder quickly encountered a problem: he couldn’t see any water from his waterfront property. The park’s trees were in the way.

Since the park was designated a national historic site in 1971, any alterations to the land, no matter how small, have had to first pass through an intensive period of paperwork, environmental impact statements, and waiting. For thirty years, no modifications were granted.

But Snyder caught a break. President George W. Bush’s new administration was placing well-connected, industry-friendly officials in powerful positions, nowhere more so than at the Department of the Interior. The new interior secretary was Gale Norton, a loyal Republican who would eventually leave her post to become a lobbyist for Shell. Her number two was Steven Griles, a coal industry lobbyist who in the Reagan administration had been deputy director of the Office of Surface Mining under the infamous Interior Secretary James Watt. To run the National Park Service, Bush tapped Fran Mainella, who had worked closely with the president’s older brother, Jeb, as director of Florida’s parks. Mainella was a newcomer to D.C. and to the notoriously insular NPS, so a veteran operative was placed below her as special assistant. His name was P. Daniel Smith, a onetime National Rifle Association lobbyist and Hill aide who had been a protégé of Griles at Interior.

Smith gravitated toward a role as the office’s political facilitator, one he played with unusual gusto. When Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, Mainella’s friend and fellow Floridian, had concerns about trees on the George Washington Memorial Parkway blocking the view of a condo he wanted to purchase, Mainella dispatched Smith to advise him. Another time, Smith got a call from Griles complaining that a film crew working with an NPS permit on the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure had parked a production truck in front of a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, interfering with the valet parking. Smith personally met with the restaurant’s manager and the film’s assistant director and got the truck moved. The restaurant, it turns out, was owned by Jack Abramoff. (Smith later told investigators he didn’t know at the time that Abramoff was the owner. Smith was not charged with any wrongdoing, but Griles eventually went to prison for lying to federal authorities about favors he did for the notorious lobbyist.)

One of Smith’s first orders of business after joining the NPS was to meet with Snyder’s attorney at the Department of the Interior headquarters in 2001, ostensibly to discuss two issues concerning the Redskins owner—a renovation of the mansion that would require a permit because it affected the park’s sightlines, and the possibility of chopping down the roughly 140 trees blocking his view of the water. In January of 2002, Snyder offered the park superintendent, a crusty, thirty-one-year park service veteran, a $25,000 “cash contribution” to the park in exchange for a permit to cut down a clearing. The deal was quickly rejected, despite a late intervention from Smith. But the outside pressure was only beginning.

A year or two after Snyder was rebuffed by the NPS, Mainella, her husband, and a small group of Bush administration officials attended a Redskins game against the New York Giants at the team’s stadium, FedEx Field, in Landover, Maryland. In a foggy and often contradictory interview with the inspector general’s office, Smith later alleged that during the game, someone close to Snyder broached the subject of the trees and asked Mainella to put someone on the case. Then she put in a call to Smith. (Mainella initially told investigators she couldn’t recall attending any such game, or having a conversation with Snyder or his associates about the trees, but later admitted she had gone to a game in the fall of 2003; the Redskins’ attorneys said they had no record of Mainella meeting with the owner.)

Tim Murphy is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.


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