- Mike Fish, ESPN Senior Writer
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WASHINGTON -- As the media gathered in a Capitol briefing room Wednesday afternoon, aides for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., flipped on the TV in anticipation that Specter would deliver a statement to the Senate critical of the NFL's investigation into Spygate. But he never made it to the floor. A lengthy exchange on food aid proved to be a more pressing issue.
Nonetheless, Specter walked into the briefing room -- his statement having been entered into the congressional record -- and challenged the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell to appoint an independent investigation of the New England Patriots' videotaping practices. Specter, the ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested something along the lines of the Mitchell report commissioned by baseball to delve into performance-enhancing drugs in the game.
Whether Congress will take up the senator's cause is a different matter.
"I have carefully not asked Congress, the Judiciary Committee, to do something to this point," Specter said. "I hope the commissioner will do this on his own."
Specter spoke kindly of Goodell, saying he had enjoyed his professional dealings with the commissioner. He added: "[He's] caught in a very heavy apparent conflict of interest."
If Goodell fails to heed his advice, Specter held out the possibility that his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee might get into the act. However, there is serious doubt whether Specter has the juice to make that happen. To date, he's been the lone ranger on the 19-member committee in calling the league and Patriots on the carpet.
When Goodell discussed Spygate with Specter in February, committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sat in for part of the meeting. But Leahy was noticeably absent when Matt Walsh, the former Patriots video assistant, came by for a three-hour session Tuesday.
Asked Wednesday about Leahy's position on Spygate, the senator's spokeswoman, Erica Chabot, said, "I don't know that he has made any statements and the committee hasn't done anything in its official capacity I know Sen. Specter has been looking into it."
Five other committee members contacted Wednesday by ESPN.com declined comment on the possibility that they might be asked to look into the league's handling of Spygate. A glance at geographic loyalties -- and the presumable pressure that might come from Patriots fans -- suggests that Specter could face stumbling blocks. Three committee members hail from New England states: Leahy, Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
Specter, who is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer, said he'd give the league until his chemotherapy treatments are complete to act on his request for an independent probe. He said that could be several months.
"My colleagues will have the information, and I'll let them decide," Specter said when asked about recourse if the league fails to hire an independent investigator. "I'm not going to pressure Sen. Leahy."
A source close to the committee, however, said it is difficult to grasp what might be investigated that falls under the interest of the U.S. Senate, other than Specter's position that the league conducted a shoddy investigation. And there's the question of what laws, if any, might have been violated.
Specter indicated it is too early to gauge the committee's interest, saying the focus still needs to be on the inadequacy of Goodell's response. If it comes to talking to the committee, Specter suggested he'd be able to make a "very strong case."
"We have hearings all the time that do not relate to a violation of law," he said. "We have hearings on what new laws to make. And we have had hearings on antitrust issues going back to the early '80s on [sports] franchise ownership. I think there is a real issue about taking the antitrust exemption away if they're not responsive to the integrity of the game."
Specter said he had not spoken to Goodell or league officials Wednesday. In response to the senator's call for an independent investigation, the league issued a statement saying that it disagrees with Specter's characterization of its investigation and that it will continue to follow up on information gathered in its meeting with Walsh.
Patriots spokesman Stacey James had no comment about the call for an independent investigation, telling ESPN.com, "I think that deserves more of a league response than a team response."
In calling directly for an investigation patterned after the one conducted by former Sen. George Mitchell for Major League Baseball, Specter might be hoping to avoid involving the Judiciary Committee. The Mitchell probe came only after baseball had been called before the House Oversight Committee -- hearings that included memorable performances by the likes of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. After those hearings, several House members suggested that baseball get its act together or Congress would step in.
Specter said he would prefer to avoid the circuslike atmosphere at that initial hearing and at the more recent appearances before Congress by Roger Clemens and his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee.
"So Congress is sort of on the spot in not wanting to have hearings which are grandstanding in the public mind," Specter said. "But a lot of people are wondering about the integrity of the game at this point. And [where this is headed] very much depends on the public reaction."
Specter stopped short Wednesday of accusing the NFL of a cover-up, though he said the league and the Patriots had "stonewalled" his staff in its attempts to interview club employees and staff. He said it was critical to speak with key players as well as with Ernie Adams, a prep school pal of coach Bill Belichick's and a trusted confidant in the Patriots' office.
In his interviews with both Goodell and Specter, Walsh said he'd turned tapes of the opposition's signals over to Adams, who previously worked with Belichick in Cleveland.
Specter, at one time the Philadelphia district attorney, also questioned the independence of the league's investigation, noting that the Patriots, the focus of the probe, were allowed to have their attorney take part in interviewing Walsh on Tuesday. And he wondered why the league failed to interview Walsh when New England originally was caught in violation of NFL rules in September 2007, saying, "You would think they'd talk to people that do the videotaping."
Specter described Walsh as a credible witness. He was far less flattering of Goodell and his statement that New England didn't gain much of a competitive edge with its illicit taping.
"It's just ridiculous to make that kind of statement," Specter said.
He also made the point that Walsh and at least three other New England staffers watched parts of the St. Louis Rams' walk-through practice before the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans. Until Walsh's meeting with Goodell on Tuesday morning in New York, the NFL wasn't aware that Walsh had given information about what he saw at the walk-through to a New England assistant coach. But Specter also acknowledged that neither he nor his staff inquired of Walsh whether New England had taped the regular-season game against the Rams leading up to the Super Bowl earlier that year.
Walsh was unavailable for comment Wednesday night. A source said he left Washington to spend time with relatives in New England before heading back to his job as an assistant golf pro in Hawaii. The source said Walsh is expected to shed more detail on his story in interviews with The New York Times and HBO's "Real Sports."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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