An email from an imprisoned friend of the Saints coaching staff with a postscript saying, "put me down for $5,000" on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has become another sore point between players being punished for New Orleans' bounty system and the NFL.
The email, obtained by The Associated Press, was written from prison by marketing agent Mike Ornstein shortly before the Saints' 2011 season opener against the Packers. Ornstein once represented Reggie Bush and later got to know members of the Saints' coaching staff.
The bulk of Ornstein's note to the Saints discusses his experiences in prison and offers sometimes brash words of encouragement to various coaches, including then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The last line states: "PS Gregg Williams put me down for $5000.00 on Rogers (sic)." Ornstein says now that was written "in total jest."
Ornstein was sentenced to eight months in federal prison, which he served in Florence, Colo., for conspiring to scalp Super Bowl tickets and hawking fake "game-worn" jerseys. He was released last fall.
"It's a running joke going for three years," Ornstein said in a phone interview this week, explaining that he had been kidding Williams about bounties ever since the NFC championship game in 2010, after which the Vikings told the NFL that they believed the Saints had a bounty on quarterback Brett Favre.
When shown Ornstein's note in its entirety, an attorney for suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma echoed his criticism from earlier this week that the NFL is manipulating evidence to strengthen a weak case.
"Ornstein's email is just another example of the speciousness of the quote-unquote evidence that Commissioner (Roger) Goodell claims to have to support his erroneous accusations against Jonathan and the other players," lawyer Peter Ginsberg said. "As more of the evidence is revealed in the media, it is becoming more and more apparent how irresponsible the NFL's actions have been."
The NFL did not immediately respond Thursday evening to a request for comment.
In a report released March 21, the NFL highlighted Ornstein's line about Rodgers, stating that it came in an email Saints head coach Sean Payton received from "a close associate."
Payton and the other coaches on the staff did not receive the email from Ornstein directly, but from team spokesman Greg Bensel, who forwarded it on Sept. 3 to the coaching staff with the subject line: "email from Orny (he asked that I send it) the dude is in prison so I told him I would."
Earlier this week, Ginsberg blasted the NFL's interpretation of a sworn statement by suspended former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, whose signed declaration explains how Williams and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt instructed him to deny the existence of a bounty program to NFL investigators.
Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney hired by the NFL, has said Hargrove's declaration confirms the existence of a bounty program, and that Hargrove was instructed to lie about it — and did lie about it — when first questioned by league investigators.
However, Hargrove, who is now with Green Bay, said this week that the NFL mischaracterized his statement, which the AP also obtained. The declaration does not go into specifics about just what Hargrove knew or did not know about a bounty program in New Orleans, and it does not explicitly say that he lied. (made a trim here)
The NFL has suspended Williams indefinitely. Now with St. Louis, Williams has apologized publicly for running a pay-for-performance program that he knew was wrong. Payton was suspended for the 2012 season, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and Vitt for six. Vitt, who is acting as head coach for most of this season, has said he was punished for tough words he used in motivational talks, but has stressed that Saints players never took the field intending to injure anyone.
Vilma, who was suspended for all of 2012 and Hargrove, who was suspended for half the season, were among four players punished in the NFL's bounty probe. Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended four games and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, received a three-game suspension.
All four players are appealing their punishment with the help of the NFL Players Association, which has stated that it has not received any hard evidence that players took part in a bounty program.
Richard Smith, the union's lead outside counsel, also decried the NFL's portrayal of Ornstein's email.
"The NFL has not provided the players with any information like this," Smith said. "It is unfortunate that they continue to withhold evidence that can show players' innocence. This email proves what we have feared: what they've been selling to the media as evidence doesn't match up with the truth."
Ornstein's rambling note summarizes his impressions of the team's preseason, then describes his six months in prison as "the tuffest (sic) 6 months of my life for sure." Ornstein writes of how he will be a better father and better person when he gets out. He notes that he lost 55 pounds and tells Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer: "No more fat jokes." After offering a variety of advice to various coaches about how to beat the Packers, he writes, "I love you guys. It would be great to be sitting here in this God terrible place and be able to have a smile on my face at least for one night."
He concludes by saying he expected to be released in 18 days and would visit the Saints soon. Then comes the final line about Rodgers.
Now living in Los Angeles, Ornstein said by phone that he had joked with Williams about bounties on other star players, including one other time in an email about Cam Newton. He said he never would have pledged the kind of money he joked about for any pay-for-performance program, never mind one that promoted injurious tackles.
"As long as I've worked with people in the NFL, everyone who knows me knows that the only things I've ever done for players is things that help them, not hurt them," Ornstein said. "First of all, I don't have $5,000 to put down. When I wrote that email, I was in jail. How was I going to pay for it? In stamps? I'm in federal jail in Florence."