The new-look, Joe Gibbs–coached version of the Redskins may yet whup everybody on the field. But John Paul “J.P.” Szymkowicz likes his squad’s chances against the Skins in the courtroom.
“We’re going to win,” says the baby-faced 34-year-old.
Szymkowicz is the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in a lawsuit against the Redskins stemming from the game-day ban on pedestrians on the sidewalks leading into FedEx Field.
The prohibition was originally put in place by Prince George’s County officials in October 2000. The publicly declared motivation was to prevent stadium-bound walkers on Redskins Road from getting run over by cars. Szymkowicz, a P.G. native, argues that the real reason folks can no longer walk on county-owned land is to increase the number of cars that park in Dan Snyder’s lots at $25 a pop. And he asserts that the fact that the original ban was not enforced after Redskins games, when just as many folks are using the sidewalks but all the parking revenues have been squeezed out of them, proves that something other than safety was behind it.
“If they can let people walk safely into Camden Yards, they can let people walk safely into FedEx Field,” he says. “This is about money.”
Szymkowicz learned about the ban while on his way to a Redskins/Dallas game at FedEx in 2001. A friend had given him a ticket to sit in the owner’s suite.
“My friend lost his parking pass, and I didn’t want to pay $25 to park,” says Szymkowicz, “so I thought we’d just park for free at Landover Mall [across the street from FedEx Field’s front entrance] and walk over. Then the police were telling me I couldn’t walk into the stadium. I didn’t even know there was a ban until then.”
Flashing the choice tickets to cops on the scene, he eventually argued his way into the stadium. As he watched the Skins lose that game, 20-14, he thought about the unfairness of the no-pedestrian policy. Shortly thereafter at work, he mentioned the situation to Peggy Chichester Feltman, a longtime client of his family’s law firm who he knew was a Redskins season-ticket-holder dating back to the Griffith Stadium days. And she, too, was livid.
“She couldn’t believe it was legal,” says Szymkowicz.
The more he looked into the parking situation at FedEx, the more convinced Szymkowicz became that Feltman was onto something. In December 2002, he filed his suit on behalf of Feltman and all Redskins ticketholders, alleging that the team and county had conspired to create the current parking situation at the stadium in violation of state antitrust laws. There’s not likely to be much money in it for Feltman or her fellow petitioners even if they win—“Maybe $1,000 per plaintiff,” he says. Szymkowicz won’t get a dime unless his side wins.
He thinks he’ll get paid.
In his 19th Street NW office, Szymkowicz keeps a 4-inch-high stack of papers in a binder that he calls “the Redskins file.” It’s loaded with zoning permits, an official inventory of “County Maintained Roads,” and various maps and correspondence between civil servants and the team.
“Here’s the smoking gun,” he says, removing from the binder a photocopy of a 2001 report by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission regarding a request by the Redskins to construct 5,000 new parking spots at FedEx Field.
The report states that team
representatives surveyed the traffic at an Oct. 15, 2000, game (a Monday-night tilt against Dallas) and found that “approximately 1,560 patrons” parked at Landover Mall, thereby avoiding a parking charge. “Since that time,” the report states, “the Redskins organization has worked to discourage and eliminate parking at
Landover Mall, and the addition of the subject
lot is intended to support that effort.”
The Redskins were able to accomplish that objective when the FedEx Field Coordinating Group, a public/private partnership made up of county and team officials and charged with overseeing the administration of the stadium, voted later that season to put the pedestrian ban into effect. No public hearings were held before the ruling.
Szymkowicz says the edict, which in effect gives the Redskins absolute control of many county-owned sidewalks surrounding the stadium, defies every state and federal code he can find regarding use of public throughways. “According to every law, sidewalks and roads are the same thing,” he says. “And the county in effect said to the Redskins, ‘Here are our roads. You guys can do whatever you want with them.’”
Even worse, he says, it’s just not fair.
“I grew up in P.G. County, and I lived there when that stadium was built, so I know that even though Jack Kent Cooke used an awful lot of his own money, we [county taxpayers] also paid $70 million,” says Szymkowicz, an alum of Surrattsville High School, Georgetown University, and the University of Miami’s law school. “That money paid for those sidewalks. But when Danny [Snyder] came in, he put profits first.”
The Redskins owner, however, didn’t put the ban into place; the county did. So why would public officials do the team’s bidding in such a voter-unfriendly matter? Szymkowicz says he hasn’t yet found a good answer.
“I really don’t know why the county did this. This thing is just a big ‘fuck you’ to the people of P.G. County,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense. But Wayne Curry is in the Hall of Fame, and he never played for the Redskins.” (Curry, the former Prince George’s County executive, was inducted by the Redskins into something called the FedEx Field Ring of Fame by the Redskins in December 2002.)
No trial date has yet been set for the case. Since his filing, Szymkowicz has won some battles: In December 2003, he got a temporary injunction lifting the ban by arguing that the rule’s imposition without public hearings violated state open-meetings laws.
He’s suffered some setbacks, too: The court has yet to certify the suit as a class action, as Szymkowicz hoped it would do, so he is left with only three named plaintiffs for now. And last week, at the recommendation of the Coordinating Group, P.G. County officials put the FedEx Field pedestrian ban back into effect—after holding public hearings this time. The board heard testimony that two pedestrians had been killed after FedEx Field events since it opened in 1997. A postgame ban on use of the sidewalks has been added.
Those rulings haven’t decreased Szymkowicz’s confidence in the antitrust action at all. He says the two people killed were jaywalking while the ban was in place and therefore are irrelevant to the case. “That board was the same one that introduced the idea in the first place,” he says. “Of course they were going to rule that it’s a good idea. But when we take this out of that kangaroo court and put it in a real courtroom, we’re going to win. They’ll throw out [the pedestrian ban]. We’ve got the facts on our side. All the facts.”
Both Jeffrey R. Schmieler, who is representing the Redskins in the Feltman case, and Jay Creech, attorney for Prince George’s County, declined to comment for this story.
The size of his foes doesn’t seem to faze Szymkowicz, perhaps because he does have a track record of fighting city hall, or something bigger, and winning. His efforts recently prevented the U.S. government from deporting Alexandre Konanykhine, a controversial Russian defector who got very rich running a construction company out of his dorm room in Moscow before falling out of favor with the Russian mafia.
Szymkowicz, who doesn’t look anything close to his age, says the suit against FedEx Field didn’t hurt him in the Konanykhine case.
“Judge Ellis thought I was just a kid, I could tell,” he says. “But that changed one day, when the U.S. Marshal came up to me in court and says, ‘I told the judge you were the attorney in the Redskin case, and he suddenly had a different attitude towards you.’ It’s true. I think this ban at FedEx Field has a lot of people pissed off.” —Dave McKenna