WASHINGTON — Since Roger Stone was arrested in a predawn FBI raid last month, his Instagram feed has featured a stream of posts declaring his innocence and denouncing special counsel Robert Mueller. But on Feb. 4, in between posts of Stone talking about his case and promoting his legal defense fund, Stone posted a photo of Cornell Webster, a little-known former NFL player who retired in 1980.
“When will [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell and the NFL keep their commitment to pay their veteran players suffering from traumatic brain injury? (Tbi)” Stone wrote. “88% of injured players are African American. Stop the racism and pay up! #nfl #superbowl53.”
It seemed off-brand for Stone, a longtime adviser to President Donald Trump best known for his political work. For the past two years, even as he’s focused his efforts on defending Trump and railing against the Mueller probe, Stone has repeatedly weighed in on the case of retired NFL players who sustained traumatic head injuries and now want the NFL to pay for the long-term harm. He’s suggested Trump should tweet about it. And he’s devoted columns and Infowars segments to the complex litigation — the details of a settlement the NFL reached with former players in 2015, the nuances of legal fights over how claims filed by former players have been handled, and Webster’s situation, specifically.
Webster says he has no idea who Roger Stone is, or why Stone is Instagramming, writing articles, and talking on air about him. In an Infowars segment last month, Stone said Webster had been delivering pizzas to make ends meet. Reached by phone Thursday, Webster told BuzzFeed News he’d never delivered pizzas, and didn’t know where Stone got that. His wife, Angelia Webster, also said she didn’t know Stone had been posting about Webster.
“I don’t know Roger Stone,” Cornell Webster said. “That’s the first time I’ve heard anything about that.”
Christopher Seeger, the lead attorney for the former players — whom Stone has accused of acting against the former players’ interests — offers one theory about why Stone had been spending so much time talking about the case. In court papers filed this week, Seeger contends that Stone has ties to another lawyer representing a group of former NFL players, Patrick Tighe. Seeger accused Tighe of pushing false conspiracy theories about the case through Stone to get media attention, and suggested the two men are collaborating.
Seeger wrote that Tighe appeared to be a “go-to source” for Stone (as well as Sheilla Dingus, who runs a website about the case) and that Stone’s commentary “echoed” Tighe’s arguments in the litigation. Seeger also wrote that Stone was a “self-described ‘dirty trickster,’” and highlighted the fact that Stone was recently charged in the Russia investigation. Stone pleaded not guilty to charges that he lied to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks.
“Indeed, throughout the implementation of the Settlement, Mr. Tighe has actively sought all flavors of the media spotlight, and has been an active collaborator with various internet sites and ‘media’ sources in spreading conspiracy theories and falsehoods about the Settlement,” Seeger wrote.
Seeger, through a spokesperson, declined an interview request.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Stone wrote that he hadn’t been paid to talk about the NFL case.
Stone wrote: “I have written two long detailed pieces for the daily caller on this issue. I strongly suggest you read them. I am paid by no one. The opinions expressed are mine. 88% of the injured players are African American. -16 % of claims have been paid . It’s a racist disgrace !”
Asked if he'd gotten information from Tighe, Stone replied, "Who is Pat Tighe?" He said his research about the NFL case was done by a research assistant, and that he found Webster's photo online. As for the pizza delivery story, Stone said he'd confused Webster with another former player; he said he couldn't recall the name of the other player.
Tighe also told BuzzFeed News he hadn’t paid Stone to discuss the NFL concussion case. He said he had never spoken with Stone about the case, didn’t have a relationship with Stone, and didn’t understand why Seeger was bringing Stone into the litigation now.
“I don’t understand why he has a problem with me fighting for my players,” Tighe said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s really just a personal attack at me, and I’m puzzled by it.”
Asked if he had ever spoken with Stone, Tighe said he didn’t think so, but it was possible, since they both live in south Florida and go to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. But Tighe said that even if he had spoken with Stone, it was not about the NFL case.
Webster, who spent four seasons as a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, is one of Tighe’s clients. Tighe said he was aware Stone had been commenting about Webster — Tighe tweeted a link to Stone’s Feb. 4 Instagram post about Webster — but he insisted he wasn’t Stone’s source and hadn’t notified Webster’s family because he wasn’t involved and didn’t think it was a “big deal.”
“Infowars is,” Tighe said, and then paused. “They’re not NBC. … If someone is intruding on my client’s privacy and my client’s rights, I absolutely would stop them from doing it.”
On Jan. 25, when Stone’s indictment in Mueller’s investigation became public, Tighe tweeted a link to one of Stone’s articles about the concussion case. Referring to Stone’s public comments on behalf of former NFL players, Tighe wrote in the tweet, “Sadly, Stone was a retired player advocate.”
Stone has called the treatment of former NFL players “a scandal worthy of a presidential tweet.” Trump hasn’t tweeted about the case, although earlier this week he said in an interview on Face the Nation that he would “have a hard time with it” if his son Barron wanted to play football.
“I just don’t like the reports that I see coming out having to do with football — I mean, it’s a dangerous sport, and I think it’s really tough, I thought the equipment would get better, and it has. The helmets have gotten far better, but it hasn’t solved the problem,” Trump said.
Roger Stone v. the NFL
As of this month, more than 20,000 former NFL players have registered to participate in the settlement claims process, according to a website set up as part of the agreement. To date, 774 monetary awards have been approved, valued at $617 million, although some are being appealed.
Stone is in the middle of long-simmering bad blood between Seeger and Tighe. Seeger is formally the lead counsel for plaintiffs in the concussion litigation, but many players are also represented by their own lawyers. When Tighe entered an appearance in the case in March 2017, he listed 60 former players as his clients, including Webster. In November 2018, Tighe said in a TV appearance with Tucker Carlson on Fox News that he was representing 90 former players.
Tighe has criticized how fees were distributed to the lawyers, arguing that Seeger stood to earn too much — Seeger's firm was awarded $51.7 million last year — and other lawyers involved wouldn't earn enough. He’s also argued that he and other lawyers aside from Seeger have been shut out of proceedings over the standards used to decide if players are eligible for settlement funds. Tighe claims the NFL has been trying to find ways to avoid paying claims, and unreasonably delaying the process.
Seeger, meanwhile, has accused Tighe of being a poor advocate for his clients. In the latest filing from Seeger — the one that highlighted Stone’s connection to the case — Seeger wrote that while hundreds of claims had been approved so far, many claims submitted by Tighe’s clients were still being audited for eligibility. Tighe told BuzzFeed News all of the claims he’d submitted were being audited.
“Given Mr. Tighe’s efforts to help sow the ‘media’ with misinformation and baseless conspiracy contentions, one cannot help but question whether Mr. Tighe is seeking to distract from his own work as a lawyer in this Settlement and deflect from the situation he has created for many players,” Seeger wrote.
Since 2017, Tighe has been arguing that the administrator reviewing former players’ claims had added criteria for players to meet that wasn’t part of the settlement agreement. When Tighe litigated this issue at the end of 2017, Seeger countered that it was routine for players to be asked to submit additional information early on to make sure their submissions were complete, and that Tighe misunderstood the process and was trying to leapfrog steps.
The Philadelphia-based federal judge presiding over the case, US District Judge Anita Brody, agreed with Seeger. In November 2017, she denied Tighe’s request “to determine proper administration of claims,” saying it was premature. Tighe asked her to reconsider, and in a Dec. 5, 2017, order, she denied that request as well.
Enter Stone. In a Jan. 18, 2018, Infowars segment, Stone said that he and fellow Infowars contributor Owen Shroyer had been exploring why certain claims submitted by former NFL players hadn’t been paid out. He suggested the NFL was encouraging the controversy over players kneeling at the start of games to divert public attention away from what was happening in the concussion case.
On Jan. 29, 2018, Stone published a piece on his website about the litigation. He wrote that he learned about the case and the issues surrounding unpaid claims earlier that month from an anonymous source.
“It became, and still is, our opinion that the reason why Goodell is allowing the NFL to commit seppuku on the knife of social justice, is to distract from the fact that they are not honoring the settlement payout agreement,” Stone wrote. “Using a lessor negative to cover for a greater negative is indeed a trick out of the Book of Political Dirty Tricks.”
(Asked if he is a football fan, Stone texted BuzzFeed News that he is a fan of the New England Patriots — he’s from Connecticut, he noted — and also liked the Miami Dolphins. Stone has a home in Florida.)
The next month, Tighe appeared on Infowars to talk about the case, where he was interviewed by Shroyer; Seeger incorrectly said in his court filing that Tighe was interviewed by Stone. In September 2018, Stone wrote articles for Infowars and the Daily Caller about the litigation and the delays in reviewing claims and talked about the case and about Webster in Infowars segments.
In early January, Brody announced she would hold arguments on appeals filed by the NFL about how certain claims submitted by former players were being reviewed to ensure they qualified for settlement funds. Under the settlement agreement, former players can be evaluated via one of two tracks — through what’s known as the Baseline Assessment Program, or BAP, or through a process outside of the BAP with another qualified doctor. If players are evaluated outside of the BAP, they have to show that the evaluation is “generally consistent” with BAP criteria.
What exactly “generally consistent” means has been a contentious issue. The judge was set to hear arguments on the issue on Jan. 9, but canceled the hearing after the NFL withdrew its appeals. Instead, the judge ordered the claims administrator to clarify that doctors had to explain in writing why their evaluations were “generally consistent” with the BAP process. Tighe, who had asked to participate in arguments, was quoted the next day in an article on Deadspin saying Brody’s order would make it harder for players to make successful claims.
A week later, Stone was back in action, publishing columns on Jan. 17 about the issue on the Daily Caller and Gateway Pundit. He criticized Brody’s order on the “generally consistent” issue, theorizing that “certainly a back room deal was cut.”
On Jan. 18, Stone talked about the case again in an Infowars segment, calling for protests outside Goodell’s home once the weather got warmer. On Jan. 22, Tighe filed court papers asking Brody to reconsider her order on the “generally consistent” issue. Seeger filed his opposition to Tighe’s request on Feb. 5, when he raised the issue of Stone’s connection to the case. The judge has not ruled yet.
The federal judge handling Stone’s criminal case, US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, is considering imposing a gag order that would limit what Stone can say publicly about his case. However, Jackson made clear at a hearing on Feb. 1 that it wouldn’t stop Stone from talking about other topics — such as the NFL.