An independent investigation praised the Portland Thorns for terminating Paul Riley in 2015, but a lawyer who shared the findings with team employees also said the club’s approach “wasn’t enough” when sexual misconduct allegations against the former Thorns coach first surfaced, The Oregonian/OregonLive has learned.
The investigation, conducted from late 2021 to early 2022 on behalf of the club by international law firm DLA Piper, confirmed Riley was fired for cause while publicly it appeared his contract was allowed to expire. A DLA Piper lawyer also said it may have been a mistake for the club to say in Riley’s termination letter that the investigation found no unlawful conduct by him or anyone else.
Although the Thorns have not released the results of the internal investigation publicly, information obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive reveals conclusions about what the club, known as PTFC, did right and wrong after Thorns player Mana Shim filed a sexual harassment complaint against Riley in 2015.
“Knowing what we know now, the 2015 approach wasn’t enough,” a lawyer for DLA Piper told PTFC employees in a mid-January meeting.
The DLA Piper lawyer told several dozen employees gathered on a Zoom call that the National Women’s Soccer League and the U.S. Soccer Federation wanted strict limits on the scope of PTFC’s internal investigation, and that the league and federation were seeking to “wash their hands of responsibility” for how allegations against Riley were ultimately handled by the league and federation as Riley was still allowed to coach professional women’s soccer.
“The League has taken the unprecedented step of partnering with the NWSLPA to jointly investigate all claims of inappropriate conduct,” the NWSL responded this week through a spokesperson. “Upon review of the findings of the investigation, where appropriate the League will take responsibility and implement changes to the way the League and our teams conduct business.”
The DLA Piper investigation also cleared PTFC president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson of wrongdoing. Wilkinson was not involved with the 2015 investigation beyond sending Riley his termination letter at its conclusion, DLA Piper found, and an alleged comment he made at the time about Shim’s sexuality was chalked up to a misunderstanding. The full scope of what DLA Piper was asked to investigate is not known.
The Oregonian/OregonLive spoke to two dozen people in its investigation into the club’s workplace culture on the business side. While the allegations against Riley have been thoroughly reported, new details from DLA Piper’s investigation come as the NWSL, its players’ union and U.S. Soccer continue their investigations into workplace misconduct toward NWSL players. PTFC has not publicly released the findings of DLA Piper’s investigation, citing the league and federation’s ongoing investigations.
PTFC provided the following statement in response to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s request for comment for this story: “Out of respect to the ongoing NWSL investigations, which we are actively cooperating with, we will withhold comment until a more appropriate time.”
Riley, 58, is accused of sexual misconduct by former Thorns players Shim and Sinead Farrelly dating back to 2014. The allegations were made public last September in an investigative story by Meg Linehan of The Athletic, and Riley was subsequently fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage (formerly Western New York Flash). He has denied the allegations.
“Both the league-PA and the U.S. Soccer investigations really want to wash their hands of responsibility for Paul Riley and what they did, even though they were aware of everything,” a DLA Piper lawyer told PTFC employees in January.
The club has previously said it fully reported findings about Riley to the league and U.S. Soccer in 2015.
The NWSL had sole authority to ban Riley from the league, and despite the information it had from PTFC, it chose not to. Riley went on to continue coaching until the allegations became public in 2021, a series of events which has been criticized by players and fans alike.
DLA Piper found that Aaran Lines from the Western New York Flash reached out to the Thorns before the Flash eventually hired Riley, asking Wilkinson if there were any concerns with Riley solely based on his coaching abilities and not including off-field concerns.
Wilkinson told Lines there were no concerns with Riley’s abilities strictly as a soccer coach. A source with knowledge of the situation said that conversation could only go that far, and Wilkinson was not allowed to discuss details of the investigation that led to Riley’s firing. Sharing those details with the Flash was ultimately up to the NWSL.
“Gavin Wilkinson was under instruction by Timbers outside counsel not to discuss any details of Riley’s termination or the investigation and direct all questions to the NWSL,” the source said.
Lines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
DEFINING A TIMELINE
A DLA Piper lawyer told PTFC employees that the league and U.S. Soccer “asked us not to do our own investigation into the Paul Riley matter.”
DLA Piper moved forward with its investigation but did heed the league’s request not to speak with current or former players.
“The League and all of its teams, including Portland, chose to conduct the Joint NWSL/NWSLPA Investigation and the investigators asked the teams to refrain from interviewing current and former players while they are conducting that investigation,” the NWSL said.
DLA Piper told PTFC employees that it wanted to speak to those individuals, along with Riley and other staff, but “did the best it could” conducting the internal investigation given those limitations.
The law firm told employees it found that Shim tried to stop Riley’s behavior by sending him an email in July 2015, asking him to keep their relationship professional and that she was “uncomfortable” with his behavior. Riley then texted her asking to meet in private to discuss the issue, a meeting which never happened, DLA Piper found.
On Sep. 16, 2015, after the behavior allegedly continued, Shim submitted a formal complaint of sexual harassment against Riley. She sent him an email that looped in team owner Merritt Paulson, Wilkinson and Nancy Garcia Ford — the club’s HR director at the time. The email was forwarded to then-NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush. This email was previously reported on by The Athletic.
In the email, Shim stated that she felt it was important to disclose Paul Riley’s “sexual harassment” toward her and outlined support for her claims. The complaint raised eight total allegations.
The allegations Shim made in her email included flirtatious and inappropriate behavior from Riley, his alleged forcing of Shim and Farrelly to kiss in front of him with promises of a lessened practice workload, close physical contact including dancing with his body against hers, multiple uncomfortable hotel room situations and more. The Athletic reported these in detail.
Wilkinson immediately placed Riley on administrative leave pending the results of a formal investigation. Garcia Ford led the investigation along with special counsel Amy Joseph Pedersen from Portland law firm Stoel Rives.
Riley responded to the club via email after being placed on administrative leave: “I wanted to address the issues immediately and I’m trying to let the vindictive and vengeful allegations sink in. … The accusations are hurtful, inflammatory, and I think I need to talk to legal counsel before answering the allegations.”
The 2015 investigation lasted eight days and included interviews with Riley, Shim, Farrelly, teammates Alex Morgan and Rachel Van Hollebeke, and assistant coach Skip Thorp. The club and Stoel Rives reviewed text messages as well.
Pedersen’s findings included that Riley had been given clear instructions about professional behavior, including not socializing with players when alcohol was involved, and that he had violated those instructions. Riley was also found to have sent inappropriate texts to players, failed to establish professional boundaries, served alcohol to players, danced with and touched a player in a hotel room, had 1-on-1 dinners with players involving alcohol, and failed to notify the club of the July 2015 email from Shim after he deleted it from his inbox.
In the end, Riley’s termination letter said no “unlawful conduct” was revealed by the investigation.
Still, Wilkinson and the Thorns terminated Riley for cause for violating the terms of his employment contract. Publicly, the club left it to appear that it had simply chosen not to renew his contract when it expired. None of the allegations against Riley were made public until The Athletic’s story broke in 2021, but the league and U.S. Soccer were fully aware of what was uncovered in PTFC’s 2015 investigation and had the full report, DLA Piper found.
Riley joined the Western New York Flash in 2016 and stayed with the club when it relocated to North Carolina, coaching the Courage from 2017 to 2021. He was briefly in consideration for the U.S. women’s national team head coaching job before publicly taking himself out of the running in 2019. His employment with the Courage was terminated after The Athletic’s story published.
“While our investigation did not reveal any unlawful conduct by anyone, we did confirm that on occasion you exercised poor judgment in your interactions with one or more players,” Riley’s termination letter from PTFC said.
“In an investigation like this, it’s difficult to exonerate somebody,” the DLA Piper lawyer told employees. “It’s a tough statement to make.”
Pedersen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A NARROWER FOCUS
DLA Piper concluded that PTFC took the appropriate steps in 2015 to investigate the matter and conduct a swift investigation, and it praised the decision to terminate Riley despite the litigation risk he presented.
But the way the investigation was conducted raises questions and speaks to how times have changed, the firm said. DLA Piper concluded that in 2015 — noting that it was before the “Me Too” movement gained traction — the scope of PTFC’s investigation was appropriate. But standards for such investigations have changed and now include tools like trauma-informed questioning and a more well-rounded understanding of concepts like grooming.
While there was clearly enough information for the club to terminate Riley, the statement about not finding “unlawful conduct” in the termination letter was questionable in DLA Piper’s view, particularly because there are multiple allegations in The Athletic’s article that were not part of the 2015 investigation. The most prominent among them were Farrelly’s allegations of being groomed and abused by Riley, which the club did not find out about until The Athletic reported on them.
“I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players,” Riley told The Athletic in 2021. “I do not belittle my players, comment on their weight, or discuss their personal relationships.”
WILKINSON CLEARED OF WRONGDOING
Wilkinson has faced criticism — particularly from a vocal portion of the club’s fanbase — for his handling of the Riley incident and an alleged attempt to silence Shim about her sexuality. Shim is among several NWSL players who identify with the LGBTQ+ community.
After The Athletic article came out, Wilkinson was placed on administrative leave at the request of Thorns players pending the results of DLA Piper’s investigation. He was replaced as general manager of the Thorns by Karina LeBlanc soon after but maintained a role with the Timbers.
Wilkinson has since been reinstated as president of soccer for both the Thorns and Timbers, while LeBlanc remains general manager of the Thorns. The players recognized Wilkinson’s reinstatement in January, shortly after the DLA Piper investigation concluded.
DLA Piper’s investigation found that not only does Wilkinson foster a positive work environment for his employees, but he also bears no responsibility for the way the 2015 investigation into the allegations against Riley was handled.
“Gavin had no involvement in the 2015 investigation,” a DLA Piper lawyer told PTFC employees.
The issue involving Shim’s sexuality — wherein Shim claimed that Wilkinson was attempting to silence her for being part of the LGBTQ+ community — was a matter of misunderstanding on Wilkinson’s part, DLA Piper concluded based on its interview with Wilkinson. Neither Shim nor a former employee who was in the room at the time were interviewed about it.
In 2014, Shim participated in a panel on polyamory and posted about it on Twitter. Wilkinson told DLA Piper the intent of his ensuing conversation with Shim was to ask her to behave professionally and not discuss having threesomes publicly on social media. DLA Piper determined that Wilkinson misunderstood what Shim was talking about, confusing the sexual identity of being polyamorous with the specific activity of group sex. Polyamory is being openly involved in more than one sexual relationship at a time with the consent of all involved.
Wilkinson acknowledged through the course of DLA Piper’s investigation that he could have chosen his words more carefully in that interaction with Shim, that he wasn’t trying to silence her sexuality, and that Shim could have perceived the interaction differently than he did.
It is unclear how — if at all — the NWSL/PA and U.S. Soccer investigations’ overall findings about the Riley situation will differ from those of DLA Piper’s. DLA Piper’s findings will be considered as part of the league/U.S. Soccer’s investigation and report, the NWSL said.
“The Joint Investigative Team is conducting a full review of the League’s and Teams’ handling of the situation,” the NWSL told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We will review the findings of the investigation and respond accordingly. … The Joint NWSL/NWSLPA Investigation is a comprehensive investigation to review all reports of inappropriate conduct across all teams. We anticipate that the investigation and accompanying report will be concluded by the end of the year.”