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Will Robert Mueller shake up the NFL?

Robert Mueller testified during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.Alex Wong/Getty Images/file

If Robert Mueller’s past is prologue, the NFL has little to fear from his investigation into how it handled the Ray Rice domestic violence case.

Mueller's an old boy, now in charge of investigating his fellow old boys.

During a 12-year stint as head of the FBI, Mueller is credited with expanding the agency's anti-terrorist focus. But expanding the public's understanding of controversial FBI decisions was never his mission, as Boston well knows.

On Mueller's watch, notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger was finally captured and convicted of serial murder charges. But Mueller's FBI never confronted the details of the immunity Bulger contends he was granted by the agency at the same time Mueller was a prosecutor in the US Attorney's Office in Boston; nor did the agency ever address the true extent of FBI corruption that for years allowed Bulger to carry out his deadly killing spree.


Shortly after the Boston Marathon attack of April 15, 2013, Mueller acknowledged the FBI had interviewed and closed its file on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of two brothers accused of planting bombs at the finish line. But Mueller resisted efforts by some in Congress to learn more details, although he did finally tell a House committee that internal communication lapses were an issue.

Under Mueller, the FBI's "hallmark certainly wasn't open relations with the public, or even open relations with Congress," said US Representative William R. Keating, who was frustrated by Mueller's refusal to provide information about a matter "where the public had great concern in the aftermath of the bombing about what happened and what could be done."

Added Keating, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, "This is a case where he refused to go to hearings. He refused to be public in his response. That was our experience."

A football player punching a woman who is now his wife, of course, differs in scope and consequences from a terrorist attack. But Mueller's prior aversion to transparency raises questions about how much transparency he believes is necessary from the NFL.


And there's also his perceived conflict of interest problem.

According to, Mueller’s law firm, WilmerHale, helped the NFL negotiate a multi-billion-dollar television deal. ESPN and various news outlets have reported other ties that create appearance problems for Mueller: WilmerHale previously represented Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder; and Dick Cass, the president of the Baltimore Ravens, which is Rice’s former team, previously worked as a law partner there.

When Goodell was asked about it during his recent press conference, the NFL commissioner shrugged off the question, saying: "A lot of law firms and maybe people have had some interaction with us in the past. Robert Mueller has not. The law firm may have. We are hiring Robert Mueller, his credentials, to do an independent investigation reporting to the owners and I'm confident that will be the case"

But as Keating sees it: "If the purpose of an investigation of the NFL is to show it's independent, wouldn't you get someone who's really independent? Wouldn't you get someone with no links to the NFL?"

Keating is running for reelection, so campaign zeal could be ramping up his response.

But Harvey Silverglate, a prominent criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, isn't running for anything, and he, too, questions Mueller's willingness to take on the NFL.

Silverglate's opinion on that score was formed two decades ago when he and noted lawyer Alan Dershowitz went to see Mueller in the course of representing Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, in the so-called Green Beret murder case. They wanted to present information showing that federal prosecutors, the FBI, and military investigators had suppressed evidence. But according to Silverglate, Mueller, then chief of the criminal division for the Department of Justice, began the session by telling them, "criticism of the bureau is a nonstarter."


Added Silverglate, who recently published an article reflecting on the MacDonald case: "He's not the kind of guy to shake up any established, entrenched agency, including a football league. He has undue faith in established authority. I doubt that anyone at the football league is quaking in their boots."

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.