Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

WASHINGTON – Penn State commissioned the Freeh Report. Major League Baseball got the Mitchell Report. Now the National Football League will have the Mueller Report.

The NFL announced Wednesday it has hired former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller III, of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, to investigate its handling of the caught-on-video assault by former player Ray Rice.

The question posed is what the NFL knew about the assault and when. Simply by asking for help from a former federal leader, the NFL aimed to show credibility, according to white-collar attorneys who aren’t working on the matter.

“You’re not going to hire Robert Mueller if you’re looking for a white wash,” said Andrew Weissmann, a senior fellow at New York University School of Law and former FBI general counsel under Mueller. “Mueller has a real M.O. about the way he analyzed things. Is there any problem? Was there a mistake made? How do you fix it?”

Clients often hire firms with whom they have a business connection, as Wilmer does with the NFL. But those choices must gain the trust of a scrutinizing public that seeks independent answers.

Whatever the result, Mueller will have a fine line to tip-toe across in his report, said Jim Mintz, founder of the Mintz Group, an investigations company that contracts with law firms. A report of this type will answer the questions the client asks of it, Mintz said. It may not reach further to look at systemic or related problems throughout the organization.

“There’s always the question in an investigation like this of where is the edge of it? Where do you stop?” Mintz said. “You want somebody who will do what needs to be done and not go further.”

Mintz worked last year with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld on a misconduct investigation into former Utah attorney general John Swallow. Swallow resigned last year and faces charges.

Other reports have faced more scrutiny, including Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s investigation into New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the closing of traffic routes on the George Washington Bridge. Democratic critics like state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said the report’s finding that Christie committed no wrongs was “not worth the paper it was written on,” according to The Star-Ledger.

Wilmer knows the NFL well.

Richard Cass, chairman of the Baltimore Ravens, where Rice played, worked as a partner and management committee member at Wilmer for more than 30 years. Wilmer partner David Donovan previously worked as general counsel and chief operating officer of the Washington Redskins. And corporate practice partner Tom Ward has represented the NFL for the NFL Sunday Ticket broadcast package deal.

Wilmer spokesperson Brecke Latham didn’t respond to questions on how much the NFL will pay Wilmer or on the extent of the law firm’s past connections to the league.

In the Christie investigation, Gibson has billed New Jersey more than $6.5 million. The Freeh Report, a scathing investigation of Penn State University following the revelations of child abuse by former coach Jerry Sandusky, cost $8.1 million. Louis Freeh, the FBI director prior to Mueller, led that investigation through his namesake consulting firm and Pepper Hamilton, the firm he now chairs.

Besides these, most general service firms can work on internal investigations, sometimes under their white-collar practice headers, other times as part of government contracts practices. For Wilmer, the FBI work falls under an “investigations and criminal litigation” group.

Many investigations often conclude long before federal indictments or media reports expose the issue. The service, usually performed by former federal investigators and prosecutors, is a profitable and common one at elite large firms.

But the public nature of Mueller’s work makes the situation somewhat tougher for a firm.

NBC Sports’ Mike Florio, for instance, asked Thursday in a blog post “How independent will Robert Mueller be?” The National Organization for Women in a statement called Mueller’s appointment on the investigation “window dressing.”

The two NFL owners overseeing the probe, New York Giants co-owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, both close confidants of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, said they would not be conducting or directing the investigation. They said it would have no timeline, and that former FBI director Robert Mueller was set to begin work immediately.

They said the inquiry’s focus will be on what efforts were made to obtain video evidence of three-time Pro Bowl running back Rice striking his fiancee; if the video arrived at the league office; and what happened to it after it was delivered.

“Our sole motive here is to get the truth and then share Mr. Mueller’s findings with the public,” Rooney and Mara said in a joint statement.

According to the NFL, both Rooney and Mara are lawyers.

John M. Dowd, an attorney from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who was with another firm when he was retained by Major League Baseball in 1989 to investigate Pete Rose’s gambling, said Mueller must have full authority, and that thoroughness is paramount.

“You talk to the police and the person that sent [the video] to them, and you do whatever you have to do to find out what people knew and when,” Dowd told The Associated Press. “There’s always more people to talk to than you think initially. We ended up in Rose with over 100 witnesses, and we talked to all of them three times, just to double-check ourselves because we had paper coming in all the time. Here you got videos, and you’ll probably want to talk to Rice and his girlfriend.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello didn’t respond to a request for comment.