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Report: Chiefs employees live in environment of ‘secrecy, intimidation, and fear’

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli (r.) with new head coach Romeo Crennel. (Getty Images)

It got lost in the excitement of the divisional round, but there was an amazing story in the Kansas City Star, published on Saturday, about the allegedly negative environment from top to bottom in the Kansas City Chiefs' front office.

The Kent Babb-penned piece outlined a culture of paranoia that reportedly led ex-head coach Todd Haley to believe that his phone was being tapped and his office was bugged. In addition, the move to general manager Scott Pioli in 2009 started a plan of secrecy in motion that prevented non-football employees — even those who had worked for the team for decades — from accessing certain areas and entire floors of the team's head offices.

Staff members with office windows facing the team's practice fields were directed to keep the shades in their offices drawn, and security guards would interrupt phone calls if necessary to tell employees to close those shades. This applied to team president Mark Donovan as well — he told Babb that he kept his shades drawn in an effort to let employees know that one was not more trusted than others.

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Todd Haley felt that he had to live in shadows. (Getty Images)

Three department heads have sued the Chiefs for age discrimination, and according to the Babb piece, people don't know who to trust anymore. But it's the Haley story that is perhaps the most interesting and disturbing. Before he was fired in mid-December, Haley was to the point where he was checking his office for bugs and believed that his personal cellphone had been tampered with.

Haley walked into the public relations office at Chiefs headquarters on a Thursday in early December. Four days before he was fired as the team's coach, he wanted to talk about what life was like inside this organization. But he didn't know who else might be listening.

Looking up toward the ceiling, he darted into a back hallway before hesitating. Then he turned around, going back through a door and stopping again. Haley suspected that many rooms at the team facility were bugged so that team administrators could monitor employees' conversations. [...]

This past year, Haley stopped talking on the phone and repeatedly checked his office for listening devices. After being fired, Haley didn't respond to interview requests; many former staffers said they signed confidentiality agreements upon being let go.

The Chiefs said there's nothing to substantiate Haley's fears, but some believed that anything was possible.

"I don't think that anything would surprise anyone, really," said a former employee who worked for the Chiefs for more than two decades. "That's how Scott wants it."

Haley wasn't the only one. According to several former employees who spoke to Babb, people in the Chiefs' front office were directed to be careful what they said and who they spoke to.

[ Related: Romeo Crennel passes test to become new Chiefs coach ]

According to the piece, it was Pioli's obsession with minutiae that put everything on the wrong foot.

During his first year, Pioli noticed a candy wrapper in a back stairwell and waited to see how long it took to be picked up. About a week passed, and it remained in the stairwell. He placed the wrapper in an envelope, and during a meeting of department heads, Donovan, then the team's chief operating officer, brandished the wrapper as evidence of the attention to detail that Chiefs employees had grown to ignore.

Stephanie Melton, who worked in the Chiefs' operations department for 11 years, told Babb that she was once made to believe she'd be fired because she parked a courier van in Pioli's (unmarked) parking space. "He was so focused on what seemed like unimportant details for the general manager of a football team," Melton told Babb. "We all had to step to the beat of his drum, but we all kept questioning: 'How is this building a better football team?'"

Those still in the organization will understandably tell a different tale. Pro personnel director Ray Farmer told Babb that Pioli simply has the attention to detail one would expect from a man trying to turn an organization around.

"In some instances, you could say that he's a micromanager to a degree," Farmer said. "I think he likes to know what information is and what you're doing. … Scott wants to know, like as a math teacher, 'How did you get to your problem; how did you get to the answer of the problem?'"

[ Also: Top five storylines for AFC championship game ]

Team owner Clark Hunt is totally on board. "I believe that good leaders do bring an attention to detail to their leadership roles," he said. "And something that I think we struggled with before both Mark [Donovan] and Scott got here was attention to detail. If you set an example with attention to detail, I think it spreads through the organization."

Still, the turnover in the organization has been fairly epidemic, and those who have retired or have been let go seem to have a particularly sharp axe to grind — or at least that's the way things are portrayed in the piece. It's hard to know for sure what's really going on in an organization unless you're in the building every day, but this report does not augur well for a Chiefs franchise still trying to get to the next level of competition. Pioli learned a lot during his time in the New England Patriots organization, but it has to be asked — is he yet another ex-Pat who took the lessons of Bill Belichick and applied them the wrong way?

"I don't miss being scared to go in every day," one former employee told Babb. "Thinking, 'Who's going to yell at me now?' It's so sad, because it was a great job. There was a time that it was a great place."

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