Browns CEO Joe Banner insisted today that the federal investigation into practices at owner Jimmy Haslam’s Pilot Flying J truck stop business is not affecting the football operation.
Banner tried to reassure fans that the probe into rebate fraud will not force Haslam to sell the team.
“I don’t know what we can say beyond what we’ve said.” Banner said. “I understand why that doesn’t give everybody total peace of mind. We’re operating the team exactly as we would, whether this would have happened or not. Jimmy’s here and incredibly supportive and a huge asset to us. He’s made it clear and I’ve tried to make it clear without any ambiguity at all that he’s not going to sell the team.
“But I understand why until that actually happens and this thing plays itself out it’s a legitimate question for people to continue asking.”
Banner said he didn’t see any scenario where the Browns would be sold.
“I don’t see that scenario, but, you know ...," Banner said.
Banner said he has talked with Haslam privately and Haslam was “extremely open” with him.
“I know him. I have a lot of confidence in him. I wouldn’t say I needed to be reassured,” Banner said.
Pilot Flying J’s headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., was raided on April 15 as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. An affidavit released days later asserted that Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J, had knowledge of the fraudulent rebate scheme, which reportedly dates back to 2005.
The FBI alleges that Pilot Flying J cheated trucking customers out of millions of dollars of rebates they were promised for making diesel-fuel purchases. So far, five former Pilot Flying J employees have pleaded guilty to fraud. About 20 civil lawsuits have been filed against the truck-stop empire founded by Haslam's father, though eight of the companies suing have agreed to a settlement.
Asked if there was a sense of uncertainty in the building about the future, Banner said, "I think when they first started, people had questions about it. But fairly quickly as they got answered they felt comfortable, they know me, they know Jimmy and I think they trust what we’ve told them and they were right back focused on what they were doing.”
Banner said it was “a surprise” to him when Pilot Flying J was raided.
“But I’ve had a chance to get to know Jimmy," he said. "We talked about how we were going to run the Browns. A focus of his was doing things the right way, doing things with integrity from the first moments I met him. It certainly wasn’t anything I anticipated, but I felt comfortable with his responses. We’ve been free to operate the Browns the same way whether this had happened or not.”
As for whether the league is satisfied the Browns are operating as they should, Banner said, “I think the league feels really good about the way things are going, but they have a wait-and-see attitude as well. I think they feel very good about Jimmy, he’s been very open and transparent with them. I think they feel confident in the way they see him leading and the team we’ve put together to operate things.”
In the spring, Haslam appeared to have lost weight, presumably from the strain of the investigation.
“I think it’s a challenging situation to go through,” Banner said. “But he’s high energy, he’s as intense, he’s got as many questions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how we can do it better. The things we’ve needed him to with questions or sponsors or relationships or people we were trying to recruit here that we wanted him to reach out to he’s done.
“He’s either in or he’s not, and he’s in.”
Banner addressed a number of other issues during his 23-minute news conference, including:
*Wide receiver Josh Gordon
Second-year wide receiver Gordon is on a short leash after being suspended for the first two games of the season for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. A second-round pick in the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon failed three drug tests during his college days.
“He spent a fair amount of time talking to Chud and he’s got to do some work and he understands he’s going to be held accountable and he gets the rope that’s left isn’t long,” Banner said, referring to coach Rob Chudzinski. “In working with the coaches they need to see that commitment, that work ethic. Obviously, off the field he needs to make good choices.”
Providing the Browns go through with the two-year construction project, for which they have hired an architect and contractor, it will begin in January.
As for changes this season, Banner said cell phone service will be enhanced.
“Your cell phones will work,” Banner said. “We expanded the DAS (Distributed Antenna System) system which is really what controls cell service and to some extent iPad service. So you will have complete cell service and you will have partial use of iPads and things like that.”
The Browns will also concentrate on issues like cleanliness and exit traffic. The bathrooms at FirstEnergy Stadium have been repainted in team colors, more trash receptacles have been added and they will be emptied more frequently. More information on improvements for 2013 will be released soon, Banner said.
Guard John Greco signed a five-year contract through 2017 on Tuesday and Banner said the Browns are trying to send a message with such agreements. He would not reveal who else could be in line for long-term deals.
“The way to build the team is to develop players, usually draft picks, but it can be a player you picked up like John or even an undrafted free agent, make those the core of your team and invest your money in resigning those players,” Banner said. “Hopefully there was a message that people hear and we’ll continue to do things that reinforces that and get people to trust that’s how we’re going to operate the team.”
*Quarterback Brandon Weeden
Banner was happy that Weeden arrived in Berea Friday, well before the team’s training camp reporting date Wednesday. The first full-squad practice is Thursday from 4-6:30 p.m.
“We're excited about the fact that he's come in,” Banner said. “He has worked real hard and he's done everything that they've asked him to do. He's got obviously a lot more work. He's gotten a chance to progress on the mental aspect of the position, so I think everyone is encouraged on how hard he's working and how bad it seems he wants to do well.”
Banner said season tickets were at 94 percent renewal rate and the team had sold the most since 1999.
“Season-ticket holders came back, which is an extraordinarily high number historically here,” Banner said. “A few percentage points actually makes a big difference. So that’s very exciting. We’ve sold more new season tickets than has been sold in any year since 1999. For us, those are the tips of the iceberg where people are starting to feel optimistic and encouraged by what they’re seeing and wanting to be even more of a part of it than they’ve been.”
After discussion, an artificial surface at the stadium has been ruled out.
“I think most everybody here is kind of a little bit old fashioned in believing that we can make it work on grass in spite of some of the challenging weather and late-season stuff,” Banner said. “Maybe we’ve got to replace it a little more frequently during the season, but our strong inclination is to play football outdoors and on a grass field.”