Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told fans Thursday that his family “is going to own this asset for a long, long time,” and said he was “very optimistic about the outcome” of a federal investigation into fraudulent practices at his Pilot Flying J truck stop business.
Speaking on the first day of Browns training camp, Haslam seemed confident that the legal issues following the April 15 raid by the FBI and IRS raid on Pilot Flying J’s headquarters in Knoxville will not force him to sell the team he took over last Aug. 3.
“I said this on Aug. 3, we’re committed to owning the Browns for a long period of time,” Haslam said. “I understand in Cleveland there’s a great deal of uncertainty because of past history, but the fans should not worry. Our family is going to own this asset for a long, long time. We’re excited and we feel (it’s) a privilege to own not just an NFL, but to own the Cleveland Browns with all the heritage and history it has.”
Some business blogs had speculated that cash flow could become an issue for Haslam, especially as he goes about the process of refunding rebates owed customers dating back to Jan. 1, 2005.
“There’s absolutely no worry about cash flow. If there was, I mentioned this earlier, we wouldn’t be doing the things we were in Berea, we wouldn’t have signed the free agents, we wouldn’t be talking about doing the things we are at the stadium,” Haslam said. “We’re looking at this as a long-term vision. We want to be successful as quickly as we can, we want to build a long-term vision here.”
Over 20 companies have filed lawsuits against Pilot Flying J and five employees have pleaded guilty in the scheme. A federal affidavit issued shortly after the raid alleged that Haslam had knowledge of the fraud to shortchange companies of rebates due.
Asked if he had a plan in place if he is indicted, Haslam said, “Our style is to be very transparent and very open. When the government investigation happened on April 15, one of the very first calls we made was to the NFL. We’re in constant contact with them. They have been very supportive in working with us and I’ll say we’re very optimistic on the outcome.”
Dressed in a gray T-shirt and brown shorts, Haslam appeared just as practice was about to start at 4 p.m. with his wife Dee. Haslam shook hands with several well-wishers and members of the media. He said his new office looks directly onto the fields and he had been itching to get outside since about 3:30.
Haslam reiterated what CEO Joe Banner said Wednesday, insisting that he did not believe Pilot Flying J’s issues have been a distraction to the football operation.
“I apologize for the negative attention this has brought to Cleveland, the Browns and the NFL and I mean that sincerely,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I’m going to stay very focused on two things. One, making sure we correct the activities at Pilot Flying J that led to some of the accusations that have been made. But secondly and more importantly, to do the things we talked to at Cleveland. I think you all are starting to see and I think it will prove out over a period of time, we’ve assembled a really good team here. Whether it’s Joe (Banner) and Alec (Scheiner) or Mike (Lombardi) and Chud (Rob Chuzinski), or the people that work under them.
“I think Joe said that and if you ask people around the building, there’s no distraction. I don’t think anybody senses distraction here. Everybody is entirely focused on the two things we talked about – winning games and providing a great experience for our fans.”