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New England Patriots escape the watchful eye of Arlen Specter

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has served his last day in Congress, and the end of his long legislative career also marks the end of his promise to investigate the 2007 National Football League (NFL) cheating scandal involving The New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, known as "Spygate." Belichick was disciplined by the NFL in September ...

Right to left: Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times; Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Right to left: Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times; Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Right to left: Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times; Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has served his last day in Congress, and the end of his long legislative career also marks the end of his promise to investigate the 2007 National Football League (NFL) cheating scandal involving The New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, known as "Spygate."

Belichick was disciplined by the NFL in September 2007 for his role in the videotaping of defensive signals during a game and practice against the New York Jets, which was determined to be in violation of NFL rules. He was personally fined $500,000, the team was fined $250,000, and the Patriots lost their first round pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

In 2008, Specter, then the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, interjected himself into the Spygate controversy in a major way. After all, Belichick's spying had allegedly gone back years and could have impacted games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, whom the Patriots narrowly defeated in 2005's Superbowl XXXIX.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has served his last day in Congress, and the end of his long legislative career also marks the end of his promise to investigate the 2007 National Football League (NFL) cheating scandal involving The New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, known as "Spygate."

Belichick was disciplined by the NFL in September 2007 for his role in the videotaping of defensive signals during a game and practice against the New York Jets, which was determined to be in violation of NFL rules. He was personally fined $500,000, the team was fined $250,000, and the Patriots lost their first round pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

In 2008, Specter, then the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, interjected himself into the Spygate controversy in a major way. After all, Belichick’s spying had allegedly gone back years and could have impacted games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, whom the Patriots narrowly defeated in 2005’s Superbowl XXXIX.

(Full disclosure: Your humble Cable guy has been a Philadelphia Eagles fan since 1978.)

Specter wrote twice to NFL Commissioner Robert Goodell to demand to know why the NFL had destroyed the tapes that were evidence of Belichick’s cheating. He promised to hold a hearing and call Goodall before the committee. He even threatened to examine anti-trust issues surrounding the NFL’s lucrative television contracts.

"The N.F.L. has a very preferred status in our country with their antitrust exemption," Specter told the New York Times. "The American people are entitled to be sure about the integrity of the game. It’s analogous to the C.I.A. destruction of tapes. Or any time you have records destroyed."

Goodell wrote to Specter, claiming that there was no evidence that cheating had affected the Patriots-Eagles Superbowl. Unsatisfied, that May, Specter met for 3 hours in his office with Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh. After the meeting, he called for an independent investigation into the matter.

That investigation and the congressional hearings Specter threatened never came to be. Nevertheless, throughout 2008 and most of 2009, your humble Cable guy would periodically check in with Specter about the progress of the Spygate investigation.

As a defense reporter for Congressional Quarterly at the time, I stood day in and day out in the hallway adjacent to the Senate chamber, chasing senators for quotes and comments.

"Senator Specter, what’s going on with the Spygate investigation?" I would often ask, having no actual defense-related question to pose as he crossed my path.

"It’s moving fast, watch the floor later today," Specter would often reply with a wink, clearly being sarcastic but playing along nonetheless.

"Here’s a quarter, go buy the newspaper," he once said, joking as if there had been some major development on Spygate that day I had missed.

In April 2009, Specter announced he would switch from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party because he no longer felt he could compete in a Pennsylvania Republican primary fight. The day of his announcement, Specter was skillfully avoiding the throngs of reporters scouring the Capitol building to demand a quote on the matter.

By pure happenstance, your humble Cable guy crossed paths with Specter as he headed into a meeting room on the first floor. "Senator Specter! One question please!" I shouted at him. He paused, turned around, and with a marked reluctance said, "Ok, what is it?"

"What does your party switch mean for the Spygate investigation?" I asked.

A smirk crossed his face as he replied, "The Spygate investigation is on hold."

Once more, after he lost his primary battle to Rep. Joe Sestak, who later lost his general election fight to Senator-elect Pat Toomey, I asked Specter what his latest setback would mean for the Spygate saga.

"The investigation has been officially closed," he said with a sigh.

And so ends the congressional interest in Spygate, along with the career of Pennsylvania’s longest-serving lawmaker. Never without a sense of humor and never shy to ruffle a few feathers, Specter used his final words on the Senate floor to lambast the current state of the world’s greatest deliberative body.

"The days of lively debate with many Members on the floor are long gone. Abuse of the Senate rules has pretty much stripped Senators of the right to offer amendments. The modern filibuster requires only a threat and no talking. So the Senate’s activity for more than a decade has been the virtual continuous drone of a quorum call," Specter said.

"Civility is more than good manners…. Civility is a state of mind. It reflects respect for your opponents and for the institutions you serve together…. This polarization will make civility in the next Congress more difficult — and more necessary — than ever."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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