Mike Cerullo: I've been 'vilified'

NEW ORLEANS -- Former New Orleans Saints defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, who offered key evidence to NFL investigators as they worked to uncover proof of a pay-for-performance bounty system within the New Orleans organization, made his first public comments on the case in the form of a letter sent Thursday morning to former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

"Since it became public that I told league officials about the (bounty) program, I have been vilified and subjected to slanderous lies," Cerullo wrote to Tagliabue in the letter obtained exclusively by ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

"It has been said... that I 'pledged vengeance on the Saints,' and that I retracted my claims after first making them. As you know, none of that is true," he wrote.

"Having people tell vicious lies about me has not been easy for me and my family," Cerullo added.

On Tuesday, Tagliabue vacated the suspensions of the current and former Saints players embroiled in the bounty scandal -- linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita and defensive ends Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove.

It was Cerullo who, in a Nov. 2, 2011, email to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, referred to the Saints as a "dirty organization."

Back then, Cerullo wrote to Aiello that he had information Saints linebackers/interim coach Joe Vitt lied to an NFL investigator about a bounty program "along with proof!!"

"I was there, in the cover-up meetings, with players and Joe (Vitt)," Cerullo wrote to Aiello. "I love the NFL and want to work there again, but I am afraid if I tell (the) truth, I will never coach again in NFL. But I was fired for a situation the Saints encourage."

In the most recent appeals hearings, presided over by Tagliabue, Cerullo testified that league investigators misrepresented what he told them about his role as the reported bookkeeper in the bounty scandal, according to transcripts.

Cerullo testified that during the playoffs after the 2009 regular season, he kept track of large playoff pledges on notepads but didn't actually collect the money.

Cerullo said the cash for hits started when former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told the staff that, "Sean (Payton) kind of put him in charge of bringing back a swagger to the defense ... so he wanted to brainstorm with us as coaches what we thought we could do. ... At one point, in one of those meetings, Joe Vitt suggested (his previous teams) had a pay-for-play, pay-for-incentive program that the guys kind of bought into and kind of had fun with, and, you know, that was his suggestion. At that point, Gregg also admitted that other places he was at, they had the same type of thing. And at that point, Gregg kind of ran with it," Cerullo testified, according to the transcripts.

Cerullo described pregame meetings during the 2009 playoffs, when the Saints faced quarterback Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and then Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.

He said Vitt told players that Warner "should have been retired" and "we're going to end the career tomorrow of Kurt Warner," according to the transcripts.

Cerullo also quoted Vitt as saying of Favre: "That old man should have retired when I was there. Is he retiring, isn't he retiring -- that whole (thing) is over, you know, tomorrow. ... We'll end the career tomorrow. We'll force him to retire."

In his letter to Tagliabue on Thursday, Cerullo wrote: "As you know from my testimony, I love the game of football and respect those who play it well and within the rules. For young men, the game teaches character. What has saddened me so much during the course of this matter is the lack of character of some of those involved."

According to transcripts, Cerullo testified that once word came that the NFL was investigating the bounty program, Williams told him to delete computer files about the bounty amounts and that Vitt checked on his progress.

Asked what motivated him to come forward as a whistle-blower with an email to the league in November 2011, Cerullo replied: "I was angry for being let go from the Saints."

He later testified: "I was angry at Joe Vitt, and I wanted to show that I was fired for lying and I witnessed Joe Vitt lying and he still had a job. So, that was my goal of reaching out to the NFL."

Offering to take a lie-detector test, Vitt challenged the testimony given by Cerullo, according to the transcripts of the appeals hearings.

Vitt vowed to sue Cerullo and described former Saints defensive coordinator Williams as "narcissistic." He referred to both men as disgruntled former employees who were fired, even though, publicly, the Saints said Williams' departure for St. Louis was by mutual agreement.

Vitt depicted Cerullo as incompetent and said he missed work numerous times and offered bizarre, fabricated excuses for his absences, according to transcripts.

Vitt was asked whether he oversaw Cerullo's attempts to destroy evidence related to bounties, which the NFL determined the Saints sanctioned from 2009-11, with thousands of dollars offered for hits that injured opponents and knocked them out of games.

"No. The answer is no," Vitt said. "Cerullo is an idiot."

In his letter to Tagliabue, Cerullo defended his work record with the Saints.

"It has been said that I 'disappeared' from work during the 2009-2010 season, that my performance ratings were poor," Cerullo wrote to Tagliabue. "I never missed work, always received high performance ratings."

In court filings, Vilma, who continues to pursue a defamation case against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, has portrayed Cerullo as a vindictive and disgruntled former employee who lied to the NFL's investigators in order to seek revenge against the Saints and Vitt.

Cerullo wrote to Tagliabue that he never wavered from his original statement to investigators "that the Saints ran a coaches-led, pay-for-performance/'bounty' program in 2009."

"I regret that some of the players facing discipline chose to attack me and coach Williams for coming forward. But what is worse is that others, including lawyers, knowingly spoke lies and continue to do so," Cerullo wrote in his letter to Tagliabue. "You searched for and found the truth; they have never thought that truth matters."

Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, cautions that the transcripts of the appeals hearings appear to have been leaked "in bits and pieces," and that once the entire transcripts come out they will speak volumes about Cerullo's credibility as a witness.

In mid-September, the NFL released a statement defending Cerullo's credibility.

"Mike Cerullo should be commended for coming forward. The information and detail he provided was credible and has since been confirmed in numerous respects both by other witnesses and by supporting documents. It is unfortunate that some have sought to unfairly attack his integrity rather than give attention to the substance of his declaration," the NFL statement read.

After being fired by the Saints after the 2009 season, Cerullo worked on the University of Connecticut's staff during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He's now director of football operations for Princeton.

John Barr is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit and can be reached by email at jbarr-espn@hotmail.com. Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.