Saints coach Payton deflects lawsuit questions

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Sean Payton calmly took questions Saturday about a lawsuit against the New Orleans Saints, saying he “appreciated” the interest in a case that alleges an attempt to cover up prescription drug thefts at club headquarters.

The Super Bowl champion coach stopped short of responding directly to the allegations, saying now was not the right time to tell his side because civil litigation is pending.

“Certainly, we understand the questions surrounding it, but I’m really not at liberty to” answer them, Payton said. “As time goes forward, well know more and more. … There just needs to be the correct steps. When you have a civil suit, those probably become more complicated. … That’s the thing that’s challenging.”

Payton and the Saints are trying to go about the business of football while the lawsuit filed by former security director Geoffrey Santini looms over an offseason that until recently was all about celebrating the franchise’s first Super Bowl triumph and the quest to repeat.

During the past week, the Saints reached a new seven-year deal with All-Pro guard Jahri Evans and a one-year deal with All-Pro safety Darren Sharper. This weekend, the Saints are holding rookie camp for their six draft picks, 14 undrafted free agents and a few dozen players invited for a tryout.

On Saturday, the Saints made Payton available to reporters with no restrictions on what could be asked.

The lawsuit, filed April 30, alleges one “senior staff member” was caught on video stealing the prescription pain killer Vicodin, while another was allowed to take a seemingly excessive amount of Vicodin from team supplies.

People familiar with the lawsuit — who have spoken to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the allegations — say the staff member allegedly stealing the pills was linebackers coach Joe Vitt, and that Payton was the other.

Santini’s lawsuit does not implicate Payton in anything illegal.

It contends general manager Mickey Loomis asked Santini to find out who was stealing Vicodin, then tried to keep the matter quiet after Santini, a retired FBI agent, brought back the results of his investigation.

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel has denied the allegations against the club, portraying Santini as a disgruntled former employee trying to orchestrate a shakedown. Bensel has said the team will aggressively defend itself in court.

Payton released a brief statement through the team the day after the lawsuit was filed, saying he never abused or stole Vicodin, but until Saturday had not addressed the matter further.

Both Payton and Vitt went about normal coaching duties during rookie practices. Vitt did not speak to reporters on Saturday and has not commented since the lawsuit was filed. When asked if he could speak on Vitt’s behalf, Payton said, “It would be inappropriate for me to try and speak on anyone’s behalf.”

Payton then added, “He’s obviously someone I think a lot of, having hired him in our first year here. He’s got as much to do with this Super Bowl run as anyone in this building.”

Payton also declined provide a general description of how the Saints’ onsite pharmacy or those of other NFL teams are typically set up.

“Honestly, I appreciate the question,” said Payton, who held assistant coaching positions with Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Dallas before getting his first head coaching job in New Orleans in 2006. “It would be wrong for me to paint any picture today. It would be inappropriate and it wouldn’t be the smart thing or really the right thing to do.”

If proven, the theft of controlled substances and an attempted cover-up could represent violations of state and federal laws. Failing to report the alleged thefts could be a violation of federal law.

Santini gave evidence he collected to federal authorities before he resigned from the Saints last August and also kept his own copies of video and audio recordings that his lawyer, Donald Hyatt II, said backs up his civil case.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has told The Associated Press that it is aware of the allegations and that an investigation is pending. Jefferson Parish authorities, who would have jurisdiction over state crimes in Metairie, said they were not aware of the allegations until the lawsuit was filed April 30 and that they are not investigating at this time.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has said the league is aware of Santini’s lawsuit and is following developments, but has no further comment.