Ezekiel Elliott case: This isn't first time NFL's Lisa Friel was accused of withholding evidence

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

The NFL Players Association’s lawsuit stemming from the investigation of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott did not go unnoticed in at least two Manhattan high-rises on Friday.

Inside the NFL’s offices at 345 Park Avenue, executives were confronting allegations aimed at the league and investigation czar Lisa Friel, who (among others) stands accused in the union’s federal filing of concealing “critical information which would completely exonerate Elliott” in allegations of domestic violence. But in a law firm just six blocks away on Park Avenue, civil and criminal attorney Eric Sanders could muster only a disrespectful laugh. Only three years ago, Sanders tangled with Friel and others in a failed $175 million lawsuit. Among the allegations: Friel’s office failed to turn over evidence in a criminal trial involving his client.

“I’m not shocked at the allegations [against Friel],” Sanders said Friday. “… It sounds familiar.”

Ezekiel Elliott’s appeal of a six-game suspension is in the hands of arbitrator Harold Henderson. (AP)

Sanders’ stance isn’t a surprise. He has taken shots at Friel’s conduct as a prosecutor in the past, most notably when the NFL announced her hiring in 2014. After NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appointed Friel as the league’s top investigator, Sanders tweeted: “How can the @nfl hire Lisa Friel, she was implicated for prosecutorial misconduct in the Moreno alleged rape case?”

It was a bombastic tweet by Sanders that ultimately wasn’t supported by court decisions. But it reached back into one of the more eyebrow-raising moments in Friel’s career. A moment that saw her Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit controversially involved in an HBO documentary that would ultimately prompt allegations of withholding evidence from defense attorneys.

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Friel was the head of the unit at the time in 2011, which was participating in a documentary relating to the group’s work. During the course of filming, two of Friel’s investigators were recorded discussing the active rape prosecution of former New York police officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata. While the footage never made it into the documentary, Friel’s office failed to turn the footage over to the defense prior to the investigators taking the witness stand, which could’ve been a violation of state law. Defense attorneys would later argue the footage could have been beneficial to their clients’ defense.

Moreno and Franklin were ultimately acquitted of the rape charges, but each was dealt prison sentences for official misconduct convictions. That’s where opposing lawyers attempted to seize on the documentary footage that hadn’t been provided to the defense. But attempts to overturn the misconduct convictions on the basis of concealing evidence ultimately failed, as appeals courts ruled the footage was immaterial and hasn’t illustrated prosecutorial misconduct.

Friel would step down from the Sex Crimes Unit in July 2011, after the evidence flap and rape acquittals. It has been reported by multiple outlets that she was asked to resign for a handful of reasons – among them engaging in the HBO documentary and also internal prosecutorial differences with her then-boss, New York County district attorney Cyrus Vance.

The NFLPA is questioning the conduct of NFL executive Lisa Friel, pictured here in 2014, in her handling of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. (AP)

Whatever the reasons, she was eventually targeted by Sanders, who filed a $175 million lawsuit against the district attorney’s office, HBO, Friel and multiple district attorney staffers stemming from the handling of the Moreno case. The suit ultimately ended in failure, but Sanders remains adamant on one point: Friel’s office failed to turn over what he believes is untold raw footage from the documentary that might have been beneficial to Moreno’s defense. And Sanders says Friel will always bare responsibility for that.

“She was the main prosecutor,” Sanders said. “It was her office. Sex Crimes was her office. That was her responsibility. She was intimately involved. She can’t push it off to the underlings. She was the supervisor. She had direct involvement in that prosecution.”

Whether the past incident speaks at all to the Elliott case is debatable. But the NFLPA went directly at Friel with a damning allegation: that she withheld key conclusions of Kia Wright Roberts, the lone NFL investigator to interview Elliott’s accuser Tiffany Thompson. Roberts testified that she produced a memo raising questions about Thompson’s credibility and ultimately didn’t feel there was corroborating evidence to support Thompson’s claims or to suspend Elliott.

The league denies the NFLPA’s allegations and says all of the evidence, including Roberts’ analysis, made it into the hands of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The players union is ready to argue otherwise, suggesting that Friel and others conspired to conceal evidence that would help Elliott’s case. Somewhere in that space is the truth. And unquestionably, Friel’s reputation is tied to it. For now, an NFL spokesperson told Yahoo Sports that she will not be made available for comment.

Sanders has been down this road and lost. He still disputes that the withheld documentary footage was irrelevant to his client’s case and believes Friel’s Sex Crimes Unit acted inappropriately. And he says that his loss shouldn’t stop anyone from questioning the motives of prosecutors who are in control of vital pieces of information.

“Prosecutors cover things up all the time,” Sanders said. “It’s just there’s never any recourse. Prosecutors do cover things up. It happens. It’s not about justice. It’s about winning. It has nothing to do with the public. It has to do with their own personal agendas and their egos.”

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