06/06/2007 06:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Step Backward into Barbarism

The Michael Vick dog-fighting case is a case study of cruelty and brutality. It's also a study of insincerity, even mendacity, on the part of those, far beyond Vick, who have orchestrated a counter-offensive against the truth. But most compellingly, the Vick case is a study in possible conspiracy and illegality -- of violating federal, as well as state and local, laws.

Michael Vick quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, is one of the highest-paid athletes in the world -- his contract is worth $167 million over ten years. In addition, he earns millions more for endorsing products, including Nike and Coca-Cola.

On April 25, the police raided Vick's 15-acre estate in Surry County, Va., looking for drugs. The cops found drug paraphernalia, but much more disturbingly, they found 66 dogs, some 30 of which were tethered with "heavy logging-type chains," according to USA Today. That's the type of chain typically used by dog fighters, keeping their fierce dogs separated from each other -- until bloody fight time. Providing a dreadful litany of evil machinery, the newspaper continued with other discoveries: "a rape stand, used to hold non-receptive dogs in place for mating; an electric treadmill modified to be used by dogs; a 'pry bar' used to open the clamped-down mouths of dogs; and a bloodied piece of carpeting the authorities believe was used in dog fights."

Vick denies that he did anything wrong; he also appears to be shifting blame for any wrongdoing to relatives. And while a few organizations, such as The Humane Society for the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have sought to focus attention on the Vick case, the legal gears seem to be grinding slowly.

Specifically, the local prosecutor doesn't seem to have a whole lot of interest in pursuing wrongdoing. In rural Surry County (population 7000), the job of Commonwealth's Attorney is a part-time post, held by one Gerald G. Poindexter, who praises Vick, even as he admitted to USA Today that he has never even met the man -- more than five weeks after the police raid.

But others seem to know Vick, and what he does. On May 21, Clinton Portis and Chris Samuels, players for the Washington Redskins, defended Vick's right to own fighting dogs. Portis told WAVY-TV, "It's his property; it's his dogs. If that's what he wants to do, do it." Both Portis and Samuels seemed unphased, on camera, when an interviewer reminded them that dog-fighting is a felony in Virginia. Indeed, Portis volunteered, with a broad smile, that back home in Laurel, Miss., dog fighting is common.

That's a tip for Magnolia State prosecutors, because dog-fighting is a felony there, too. But in the meantime, highly paid spin doctors went to work doing damage control for the over-talkative players. Drew Rosenhaus, sports agent for Portis, stepped in on behalf of his client. As Rosenhaus recalled events, Portis called him after the WAVY interview, full of anguish about how his words had been taken out of context. Stated Rosenhaus: "He said, 'Drew, I didn't mean for the way that came out. All I was saying, I wasn't condoning dog fighting. I wasn't condoning Michael Vick's conduct.'" Actually, what Portis said, verbatim, was, "It's his property; it's his dogs. If that's what he wants to do, do it."

So one might ask: Is Rosenhaus spinning, to the point of fibbing, on behalf of the man who pays him? It would be hard to say that Machiavellian maneuvers are out of character for Rosenhaus, who is, after all, the author of a 1998 autobiography entitled A Shark Never Sleeps: Wheeling and Dealing with the NFL's Most Ruthless Agent. One might reasonably conclude that Rosenhaus is shark-like and ruthless to this day. In which case, the mere truth wouldn't stand much of a chance in his mind, or mouth.

Rosenhaus's shark-spin has been aided by a mostly morally obtuse sports press corps. The jocular gist of a piece by MSNBC analyst Don Pierson, for example, was telegraphed in a headline: "Vick can escape doghouse by working harder" -- that is, playing football better. Pierson quoted Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank as saying that his $167 million quarterback was "on a short leash." Ha, ha.

But Blank -- co-founder of Home Depot, worth an estimated $1.3 billion -- seems uninterested in chastising his star player; Blank has not responded to entreaties from PETA to take any action against Vick, or even to express "zero tolerance" for abusive behavior in the future.

Indeed, Football Inc. seems to think it can ride the Vick case out, because it hasn't received that much national attention. Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League, has contented himself with guarded platitudes; on May 24, he said he was "very concerned about the issues revolving around" Vick, but wasn't ready to consider any disciplinary action.

But the fact remains that dog fighting is abhorrent to the vast majority of Americans, and rightly so. That's why it's a felony in 48 states, and a misdemeanor in the other two, Idaho and Wyoming.

Therefore, authorities -- at all levels of government, local, state, and federal -- should look into Vick's actions, lest the cancer of barbarism be allowed to spread further.

Where to begin the inquiry? Let's start with the obvious suspects: the 10 people, at least, who had regular access to Vick's estate. Each one of them should be thoroughly interviewed--under oath, of course. And if Surry County's Poindexter can't handle the work load, then the attorney general for Virginia, Bob McDonnell, could offer assistance. And let's not forget the vast legal resources available to the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Chuck Rosenberg.

But do state and federal lawyers have jurisdiction? Yes, declares Los Angeles lawyer Gregory A. Piccionelli, citing an exhaustive list of statutes to be invoked.

Let's start, Piccionelli suggests, with the 10 individuals already involved in the case, who might have knowledge of felonious activity. What did they do? What do they know? Also, what might they have recorded? In a world full of inexpensive and ubiquitous cameras -- in cell phones, for instance -- it's not hard to imagine that someone took pictures, or video. That's a lot of potential evidence to review.

Next, the 66 dogs found on Vick's property. With a little sleuthing, it shouldn't be hard to figure out where all those dogs came from. Who bred them? Who bought them or brought them? Were any of them stolen? Was there any sort of deception or fraud involved in moving those dogs around -- perhaps across state lines. Vick is a licensed dog breeder who had reserved his own domain name ; that means he had contact with authorities, attesting certain things to be true, as well as interaction, presumably, with suppliers, vendors, contractors, and veterinarians.

And of course, there are more witnesses to depose. How did Clinton Portis, to name one, get so familiar with Michael Vick and his doings? And it might be worth checking in on Drew Rosenhaus, just to see what conversations he might have had -- and then to compare Rosenhaus' words to those of all his interlocutors, using cell phone and e-mail records as a verification tool. In the eye of a determined prosecutor, coaching a client and spinning the press can be seen as "obstruction of justice."

One big question, Piccionelli suggests, is whether or not any sort of gambling was involved. If so, then state and federal tax officials would presumably be interested in any winnings that might not have been reported.

But potentially looming above all other applicable laws is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, which Piccionelli describes as the "nuclear weapon" of enforcement mechanisms.

The federal RICO act punishes the use of an enterprise to engage in certain types of criminal activity, such as the operation of an illegal gambling business under 18 U.S.C. §1029 or illegal transmission of gambling information under 18 U.S.C. §1084. And whereas the law makes antique references to "wires," all forms of electronic information-sending are covered by RICO -- e-mail, text messages, chat rooms, blog postings, etc.

The RICO statute, a favorite among federal prosecutors, was designed to cripple and eradicate organized crime enterprises. If Vick has in fact engaged in any activity that could subject him to criminal prosecution under RICO, he could potentially be in serious legal jeopardy. The punishments for violating the criminal provisions of RICO are exceptionally harsh. For example, a person criminally charged with violating the federal RICO act faces up to twenty years in prison for each RICO violation.

Additionally, the property forfeiture provisions under RICO are far and away the most severe under U.S. law. A convicted defendant could be forced to forfeit all interests in all property materially involved in or derived from the racketeering activity. So if the underlying criminal activity that gives rise to a RICO indictment was conducted out of a home, for example, the home could be forfeited to the government. Or the estate in, say, Surry.

RICO also contains civil provisions that allow a private party, such as an individual or company, injured by a RICO defendant to recover damages from the defendant in civil court. A successful civil RICO plaintiff may collect three times the amount lost to the defendant, as well as attorney's fees and other costs associated with the litigation.

So if Vick and others engaged in activities covered by RICO, then sponsoring companies, as well as shareholders, might have the right to bring an action against them to recover treble damages resulting from the illegal activity.

Oh, and by the way, there's a RICO act for Virginia, too.

That's a long list of laws, possibly applicable to a long list of people.

But the Vick case matters a lot, and here's why. If authorities fail to scrutinize Vick and all his enablers -- from rough-hewn relatives to sleek corporate wheeler-dealers -- then a loud signal will have been sent: It's OK to abuse animals if you have enough fame, fortune, and football.

In which case, America will have taken a giant step backward--backward into a dark age of barbarism against mammals, not limited, perhaps, to dogs.