‘When are others going to be held accountable?’: Allegations of Suns misconduct extend beyond Robert Sarver

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ON THE AFTERNOON of Sept. 21, Phoenix Suns employees logged onto an all-hands Zoom session led by team president and CEO Jason Rowley. Hours earlier, Robert Sarver had announced he was selling the Suns and Phoenix Mercury amid continuing and widespread anger over his conduct as majority owner. While employees eagerly anticipated what Rowley might say about the sale and how it could impact their futures, another thought was burning on the minds of many on the call.

It was a question that had been percolating for days throughout the organization. Like all of them, it was submitted anonymously through the team’s new human resources department.

After a 10-minute opening statement, Rowley began reading questions from his staff.

“While Robert has been around for the last 18 years, many other leaders in our organization overseeing the day-to-day have been here as well,” Rowley read aloud. “Are there any sanctions coming for specific members of our organization as a result of this investigation?”

That query tied back to a specific passage in the report from the New York-based Wachtell Lipton lawyers the league had hired to probe Sarver’s tenure:

“Many current and former executives and employees told investigators they believed Sarver’s conduct had a trickle-down effect: he behaved poorly toward his direct reports, and those reports in turn felt they had license to mistreat their own reports,” the report read.

The line hit hard for one longtime Suns executive who recently left the team. “I went into therapy because of [the trickle-down effect],” the former executive said.

The Suns and Rowley were prepared for such questions. They had commissioned global advisory firm the Brunswick Group to prepare a communication plan for the team in advance of the NBA’s report, team sources told ESPN, and the topic of punishment for executive misconduct was included in one of many proposed questions along with suggested answers.

The 166-word Brunswick Group-prepared response largely deflected, current employees said, framing issues and incidents as “historical matters” and highlighting improvements in workplace culture over “the past several years.” But the NBA report was blunt, noting that the “investigation finds instances in which certain Suns executives yelled at and subjected their colleagues to embarrassment, humiliation, and intimidation in the workplace, including conduct that constitutes ‘bullying’ under the Suns Workplace Policy.”

And on multiple occasions in the report, the Wachtell lawyers noted that they had elevated misconduct by Suns executives to the league for further action.

“Both the sales process of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury and the review of alleged misconduct by others at the organization are ongoing,” said NBA spokesperson Mike Bass. “That review will remain an internal personnel matter.”

After Rowley read the question, he began to respond, noting that they had only seen the report a week prior and that there were items in it that the organization would be looking into, with potential “corrective action” to follow. He praised the efforts the organization had recently made to improve — such as an updated respect-in-the-workplace training — and offered commitment toward those efforts.

“This is about holding people accountable, from top to bottom,” Rowley said, “and making sure that we never find ourselves in a situation like this again.”

The findings in the league-commissioned 43-page report by Wachtell Lipton were shrouded in anonymity, but current and former Suns employees quickly noticed that specific instances of executive misconduct were tied to Suns executives — and directly to Rowley.

Said one female former employee, “I remember when all this stuff came out about Robert, I thought, ‘Finally, but when are others going to be held accountable?’”

“It was really disturbing,” said a female current employee of the findings. “It was really hard to read. It still is.”

In interviews with more than two dozen current and former Suns employees, ESPN confirmed specific accounts of alleged misconduct by Rowley and other Suns executives in the report — and uncovered additional allegations, including verbal abuse of employees, mistreatment of pregnant and postpartum employees, and other instances of retaliation and intimidation.

Echoing a sentiment held by many current and former Suns colleagues, one current employee said: “Sarver created the culture, but [the executives] upheld it.”

“Leadership matters. I have taken full responsibility for my mistakes, and I have apologized for any harm that my words caused people,” Sarver said. “The idea that anyone had a ‘license to mistreat’ other employees is false and insulting — and not consistent with the high level of performance of the franchise and the experience of employees as reported in their anonymous feedback to the league in every survey conducted.”

After Rowley mentioned on the Zoom call that people tied to the investigative report’s findings would be held accountable, current and former employees were left to consider a different question: How, if at all, that desire would apply to key Suns executives, including the team president.

“That question really was asking,” one former employee said, “‘Are you going to fire yourself?’”

On Sept. 15, two days after the NBA announced its punishment for Sarver — a yearlong suspension and a $10 million fine — the league, working with Sarver, appointed Sam Garvin the team’s interim governor. Garvin is one of 13 minority owners who signed a statement in support of Sarver immediately after ESPN published its November 2021 story that prompted the league to investigate.

In the NBA’s official punishment letter to the Suns, according to team sources, it lists a series of provisions. In the section regarding the team’s interim governor, it reads: the Interim Governor shall not have the authority to do, or cause the Teams (or their holding company) to do, any of the following without Mr. Sarver’s prior written approval (and in all cases subject to applicable League rules and agreements):

The last provision: “terminate or hire a new Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, or Chief Revenue Officer of either team.”

In other words, CFO Jim Pitman, CRO Dan Costello and CEO Jason Rowley cannot, without Sarver’s written approval, be removed.

“The League’s letter carves out a limited number of responsibilities that I continue to retain based on my fiduciary duties as the managing partner of the entity that owns the Suns organization,” Sarver said. “Specifically, the League agreed that I retain approval on certain actions that could have a meaningful financial impact — including the makeup of the senior leadership team.”

The NBA declined to comment on the content of its confidential communication with the team.

ROWLEY’S INVOLVEMENT WITH the Suns dates back to Sarver’s acquisition of the team in 2004. At the time, Rowley was an attorney at Phoenix law firm Snell & Wilmer LLP, which facilitated the purchase. Rowley, according to a 2011 story in the Phoenix Business Journal, made an impression on Sarver, who brought him aboard in 2007. In October 2011, Rowley became the team’s chief operating officer after serving four seasons as the team’s senior vice president and general counsel. The next summer, Rowley became the team’s president.

Alleged incidents arose early in Rowley’s tenure with the Suns, multiple former employees said. Said one female former employee, “He was a nice guy when he started. Then he became team president.” In the report, the lawyers wrote, “On one occasion, an executive ‘barged’ into a female employee’s office, leaned over her desk, and cursed at her when he learned the employee had informally complained to a colleague about her reporting structure.” The executive referenced in this account is Rowley, several former employees said.

This alleged incident occurred in early 2013, the former employees said. After complaining about the change in reporting structure following a new hire, the woman, who worked in the legal department, returned to her office. Soon after, Rowley entered. One former employee described him as “red-faced” and “screaming at the top of his lungs,” as he unleashed a profanity-laced tirade toward the woman, allegedly saying, “‘Who the f— do you think you are? Who are you to question the reporting structure?’ If I tell you to report to someone, you f—ing report to them.”

From that point on, a former employee said the woman felt “iced” out by Rowley. The woman was pregnant at the time, the former employee said, although she had yet to disclose it. Later in 2013, another incident referenced in the Wachtell report involved this same woman, former employees told ESPN. As the lawyers wrote, a woman “faced difficulty in trying to get her maternity leave approved and was fired shortly after she returned from maternity leave. Male team executives tried to terminate the female employee while she was on leave, but the employee’s female supervisor persuaded them to wait until the employee returned to work to eliminate her position.”

One former employee added that one of the executives who sought to have the woman terminated while on maternity leave was Rowley.

About a month after the woman returned to the office early in 2014, former employees said, she was called into a meeting with her supervisor, a female executive. The executive, who declined to comment for this story, felt uncomfortable and “couldn’t look the woman in the eye,” a former employee said, as she explained that the woman’s role had been eliminated.

“[The executive] looked as white as a ghost when she came in,” a former employee said. “You could tell she was the executioner sent by them and that she didn’t want any part of it.” The woman was offered a severance package and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, the former employee said.

Another incident not mentioned in Wachtell’s investigation occurred in 2015. The Suns had set up an executive gathering at a Phoenix-area restaurant, an event a female Suns employee had helped arrange. When the attendees arrived, a restaurant representative apologized for a scheduling mistake on their part and explained that the restaurant wasn’t prepared to accommodate the event, current and former employees said. Rowley allegedly then “tore into” the female Suns employee, according to one employee who witnessed the exchange, telling her how the mistake was unacceptable. “It was not her fault at all, and she was in tears,” the employee said.

Ultimately, the incident was a catalyst for the woman departing the organization.

Rowley’s conduct extended beyond misconduct toward women, according to the Wachtell findings and additional ESPN reporting.

About a half-decade into his tenure, multiple former employees said, Rowley and his wife entered the Suns’ arena for a concert, and Rowley sought to bypass security at the main entrance but was stopped. “Don’t you know who I f—ing am?” Rowley allegedly asked security officials, according to one former employee who was present. “Do you want to lose your f—ing job?” Soon after the incident, arena officials created a special orange badge that would go to key Suns executives, including Rowley, multiple former employees said. While other Suns executives could also wear the orange badge, they didn’t need it because they often wore their own credentials; Rowley did not, a former employee said, and often sought to bypass security lines and allegedly “blew up time and again” whenever he was stopped. Arena security officials soon called the orange badge the “Rowley badge,” and, the former employee said, arena officials were instructed not to ask Rowley if he had a ticket if they saw him, and if he came through the entrance with a large group, not to engage him.

In early 2020, in another incident not in the Wachtell report, Rowley and his wife were attending another concert at the Suns’ arena. Neither of them, one former employee present then said, was wearing the orange badge. At one point, Rowley’s wife was stopped by an arena employee when she entered a restricted area, two former employees said.

Rowley allegedly became incensed and yelled at the employee, “Do you know who the hell I am?” Soon after, Rowley allegedly yelled at the employee’s manager, telling him to “fix the problem,” the former employees said. Rowley’s wife allegedly stood behind him, mouthing the words, “I’m so sorry.” Soon after, Rowley allegedly emailed the manager, demanding that the arena employee be fired, the former employees said. The manager, believing he would be terminated for not following orders, consulted with other Suns executives and was instructed not to fire the employee.

CURRENT AND FORMER Suns employees told the lawyers from Wachtell that Rowley wasn’t the only executive complicit in workplace misconduct.

One incident in the report was described as an “institutional failure.” In 2019, “a representative of a team sponsor made unwanted advances toward a female Suns employee and grabbed her buttocks during a work trip. Two team executives were nearby when the incident occurred, and the female employee reported the touching to at least one of these executives. The incident was also reported contemporaneously, at least in part, to another senior team executive and, approximately one month later, to three additional senior team executives. No action was taken against the sponsor representative, who has continued in that role to date. As a result, the female employee has been required to continue working at events where the sponsor representative is present.

“In interviews with investigators, senior team executives acknowledged that the Suns mishandled this matter. The Suns legal department engaged outside legal counsel to review the incident.”

Rowley; Costello; Kyle Pottinger, the Suns’ senior vice president of ticket sales and service; and Melissa Goldenberg, the team’s general counsel, were among the executives who were aware of the incident, according to team sources.

According to several current employees, the incident occurred at a bar in December 2019 in Mexico City, where the Suns were playing the San Antonio Spurs. Along with making unwanted sexual advances, including grabbing the female Suns employee’s buttocks, the representative of the team sponsor texted the employee his hotel room number and photos of his room, a current employee said. Pottinger, who was in the bar when the alleged groping occurred, spoke to the employee that night, asking if she was OK. The day after, the representative of the team sponsor called the female Suns employee, allegedly saying that he was told that he owed her an apology.

Back in Phoenix, during an executive meeting to discuss the trip, the incident was not broached, the current employee said. The issue also wasn’t initially brought to the team’s HR department, the current employee said, because the department then had a reputation of being retaliatory. (A number of current and former employees have previously told ESPN about problems with the team’s then-HR department and how a range of issues over the years were never brought to HR.) Several high-ranking executives — including Rowley and Pottinger, the female employee’s manager — spoke to her about the incident, but the employee was still tasked with planning events that the representative of the team sponsor attended. “He’s still on the account,” the current employee said. “He’s still considered on the VIP list. He’s still treated as if we roll out the red carpet any time he’s there.”

The organization’s response to the 2019 incident in Mexico City ran in stark contrast to how the organization handled a February 2022 incident during which a male courtside seat-holder was alleged to have inappropriately touched a female guest services staff member at the team’s arena, multiple current and former employees said.

That incident was captured on film, one former employee said. Within 24 hours, the Suns revoked the man’s courtside seats and suspended him from entering the arena for a year, current and former employees said. Almost immediately, Pottinger allegedly hosted a Zoom session with members of the Suns’ ticket sales team. On it, Pottinger explained that the team had fired a client — who one former employee estimated had spent roughly $500,000 with the Suns in the 2021-22 fiscal year — because he had harassed one of the team’s guest service representatives.

By then, the Suns had rebounded from a decade of malaise and were considered a championship contender. “Now that we’re a winning team in a good financial situation,” Pottinger allegedly said, according to a former employee who was on the call, “we don’t have to stand for this anymore.” (A second employee confirmed that Pottinger mentioned the team’s success and revenue as being a reason they didn’t need to maintain a relationship with the client.) Later, one of the employees asked Pottinger about the swift action the team had taken with this client and wondered why they hadn’t done the same with respect to the 2019 incident in Mexico City.

In response, Pottinger, the employee recalled, became “very defensive.”

Two weeks after initially responding to ESPN’s questions through Suns Legacy Partners, the LLC that operates the Suns, Mercury and Footprint Center, the team issued a second statement, responding to the same questions.

The team declined to make any of the executives named in this story available for comment but said several of ESPN’s questions contained “factual inaccuracies and/or are deprived of important context necessary to understand the totality of situations that are complicated and matters of some dispute.”

Regarding the 2019 allegation in Mexico City, the team said: “As noted in the NBA report — and as our senior leaders affirmed in hindsight to Wachtell Lipton — we did not do enough in response to the December 2019 incident. The fact that the details related in [ESPN’s] question differ from what was initially presented to us does not excuse the lack of an effective response. Neither does the fact that financial concerns and the organization’s profitability played no role in our handling of either matter,” the team said in its second statement. “The plain truth is, we should have been disciplined and diligent in the reporting and remediation process. And our organization should have had in place more effective structural safeguards to respond to allegations such as the one raised in December 2019.

“That is deeply regrettable. We believe we have made meaningful progress since then.”

On Nov. 10 of this year, the Suns held respect-in-the-workplace training sessions for employees in the food court of the team’s arena, multiple current employees said. One hourlong session was introduced by the head of Suns HR, then led by a Phoenix-area attorney who focuses on labor and employment law. At one point early in the session, the lawyer noted that harassment against team employees also extends to vendors — which would include a team sponsor — and fans. Two employees present immediately thought of the situation in Mexico City in 2019 — and the “institutional failure” described in the report. “I sat there and thought, “Why didn’t we enforce this before?” one current employee said. “This is too late. And what’s happening to the executives who should have pursued what happened?”

One Suns executive, speaking of the 2019 incident in Mexico City, said, “We were never, never going to let go of [the representative of the team sponsor]. We were never going to let go of him, because revenue was that important. It’s changed internally, but it’s only changed because we’re so good and we have so much revenue, and we can afford to cut ties with people who do things like that.”

In 2014, a female employee who was about 35 weeks pregnant discussed her status with Costello. About a month after she returned to the office, he allegedly told her, “You and your husband need to have a discussion about who’s going to take care of your kids, because you can’t work here and do both.”

Costello and another Suns’ executive, Doug Chisholm, the Suns’ VP of business operations, allegedly wouldn’t make any accommodations for her pregnancy, two former employees said, and asked for a doctor’s note if she needed to cut back her hours. Later, Chisholm told the employee, “While we want to support you personally, we can’t do it professionally.” Said a former Suns employee, “It’s chilling to me that they would say something like that.”

The employee was demoted and left soon after, two former employees said.

“They made it really hard for her to be a mom,” one former Suns employee said. “Now that I’ve had a child, the biggest thing is I don’t know how anyone there had kids.”

“Sarver created the culture, but [the executives] upheld it.”

Current Phoenix Suns employee

Five years later, a similar situation allegedly arose. An employee, who was with the team between 2019 and 2021 and wasn’t contacted by the Wachtell lawyers, was 10 weeks pregnant when she began with the Suns, a former employee said. In 2019, the employee told Goldenberg about her pregnancy. A former employee said that Goldenberg allegedly told the pregnant employee that the team didn’t have a formal maternity leave policy because “Robert doesn’t believe in one.”

“This is nonsense,” Sarver said. “During my time leading Western Alliance Bank, I spearheaded expanding maternity leave benefits for employees. My actions demonstrate not only that I ‘believe’ in maternity leave policies, but I improved them.”

Goldenberg’s professional connection to Sarver dates back to 2011, when, for a three-year period before joining the Suns, she served as corporate counsel for Western Alliance Bancorporation, where Sarver held a seat on the company’s board since 2002 and the title of executive chairman from 2018 to 2022.

The pregnant employee contacted other NBA teams to learn about their maternity leave programs, then presented this information to Goldenberg, the former employee said. Asked whether Sarver had been convinced after being presented the information, Goldenberg allegedly told the employee that Sarver wasn’t, the former employee said.

Sarver denied he was presented with information about other NBA teams’ maternity leave policies.

The employee went into preterm labor at 29 weeks, and her premature baby required treatment from an intensive care unit for the next two months, the former employee said. Goldenberg allegedly told the employee she needed to work from the hospital, which the employee did. The postpartum employee later applied for short-term disability and asked Goldenberg for an additional one to two weeks at home, according to the former employee. Goldenberg allegedly replied, “You can be a stay-at-home mom or you can work, but I need you f—ing here.”

In the fall of 2020, with the COVID pandemic sweeping the country, the employee was furloughed along with a number of other Suns employees. She left the company altogether the next spring.

“Prior to our current Paid Family Leave Policy and workplace flexibility policy,” said Suns Legacy Partners, “a new mother relied on short-term disability coverage to address her desired time off after giving birth and there were no processes in place for managers to deviate from that.”

Among the scenarios the Brunswick Group played out for the Suns as their crisis public relations firm was how to answer questions about the team’s prior handling of maternity-related issues.

A potential question from Brunswick:

“The investigation showed that the lack of a comprehensive parental leave policy contributed to significant gender issues within the Suns Culture. Did the lack of policy cause women within the organization to be discouraged from returning to work?”

The suggested answers:

“As part of our commitment to create a safe, inclusive, and respectful environment and our efforts to implement best-in-class policies, over the last several years we have enhanced our paid parental leave policy.”

“The organization currently maintains a Paid Parental Leave (PPL) program made up of multiple options to support all colleagues as they welcome new additions to their family.”

In the Wachtell report, the lawyers wrote, “The investigation finds that the Suns organization has been a difficult place for women to work, particularly if they have young children, and that Suns executives have on occasion treated female employees differently because of their gender and/or pregnancy.”

“As I mentioned, I was deeply involved in developing and implementing the maternity leave policy as the CEO of Western Alliance Bank — and I invested heavily in expanding the benefit over time,” Sarver said. “And I wanted the same thing for our employees of the Suns and Mercury. Like all of the day-to-day operational issues, that was the responsibility of the executive team.”

The team was required to fulfill various workplace improvements as a result of the NBA’s investigation, one of which was to retain an outside firm “to evaluate and make recommendations with respect to both existing and newly-created workplace policies and procedures including, but not limited to, the teams’ new Paid Parental Leave program.”

“We spent multiple years listening to employees, conducting employee focus groups, researching best-practices (including those catalogued in an employee’s doctoral thesis), and constructing a policy that we believe is above industry standard in what it provides to child-bearing, non-child-bearing, and adoptive parents,” said Suns Legacy Partners. “We have also hosted trainings for employees to ensure our entire organization understands the expectations and sensitivities around paid family leave and how best to support new parents in our ranks.”

That new paid program was implemented in the spring of 2022.

“Put simply, we get it: Across the past 18 years, there have been instances where our owner, our leaders and our organization did not meet the expectation of our employees, the League and our community,” the team said in its second statement. “That is unacceptable. We have taken accountability. We have made changes. And we will continue to do so until we get this exactly right. …”

“Across 18 years — the time period examined by Wachtell Lipton in a review that encompassed more than 80,000 documents and 320 interviews – have there been regrettable moments, moments where past or current senior leaders have let their frustration or disappointment show in inappropriate ways? Unfortunately, yes. Any senior leader still employed by the Suns must own his or her actions both good and bad, learn from those actions, and do better. That is non-negotiable.”

AFTER ROWLEY’S 20-MINUTE Zoom call, some employees described his words and answers as boilerplate corporate-speak.

What Rowley didn’t mention on the call was that in the days leading up to the release of the NBA’s report, word had begun to spread throughout the organization, including to Rowley, that the investigation contained multiple lanes of findings beyond Sarver that included misconduct by Suns executives.

A team source told ESPN that Rowley had been informed by Sarver that the report contained executive misconduct directly pertaining to him.

Rowley had been a staunch defender of Sarver ahead of the ESPN report and after the NBA had hired Wachtell to look into the Suns. One current employee described Rowley as being “in denial” about potential ramifications for Sarver, who Rowley allegedly believed would get a “slap on the wrist.” At one point before the report was released, Rowley told the employee that the organization would soon see who was on “Team Robert,” the employee said, calling it a sign of Rowley’s allegiance to Sarver, for whom he had worked for nearly two decades.

That alleged allegiance seemed misguided, the employee said. “Robert could say that he didn’t know what was going on, but Jason can’t say that,” the employee said. “It’s too small of a company, and he’s been there too long.”

On the day the report came out, one current employee said executives frantically scoured through the language in their offices with the doors closed. Rowley, meanwhile, drove the message that many events in the report were “historical matters,” the employee said.

All the while, rage boiled from some employees throughout the organization.

“There’s a lot of people in leadership that have been there for 10-15 years that are contributing to the problem,” a current employee said. “They’re not good people. That’s what it comes down to. They don’t care about anyone but themselves.”

“The work is not complete,” a second current employee said. “There are still senior executives who are currently on staff that have helped to foster this toxic workplace for the last 15-plus years with no culpability for their actions.”

Said a third: “Some of the same toxic people that caused the problems are still here and have not been fired. That’s a huge problem. The abusers continue to work under our roof.”

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