WESTLAKE: As Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wrapped up his speech Tuesday night during a National Football Foundation awards banquet, he offered advice to some of Northeast Ohio’s top high school players and coaches.
“Most of the lessons that I’ve learned in life, candidly, came through athletics and I think particularly football,” Haslam said. “The great thing about football is it’s the ultimate team sport. No matter what position you play, if you don’t do your job, you’re going to let the team down. Candidly, that’s the way life is, that’s [the] business that we play in, and you’ve got to count on everybody on your team.”
Perhaps no member of an NFL organization is more important than its owner, and many Browns fans aren’t sure whether Haslam can practice what he’s preaching. Their faith has understandably wavered since federal agents raided the Knoxville, Tenn., headquarters of Haslam’s family business, Pilot Flying J, on April 15 as part of an ongoing investigation into an alleged fraud scheme.
“I apologize to the city of Cleveland, Northeastern Ohio and all Browns fans because the last thing we ever wanted to do as a new owner was detract from football and the Browns and just what a great football area this is and so I apologize for that,” Haslam said after his speech, addressing the local media for the first time since the raid. He spoke in a separate room at the LaCentre Conference and Banquet Facility. “We feel badly about it, and we’re very comfortable we’ll work through this situation.”
Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J whose $1 billion purchase of the Browns from Randy Lerner was unanimously approved by NFL owners Oct. 16, did not take questions from reporters.
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service launched their investigation after someone offered a tip on May 4, 2011, claiming a Pilot Flying J regional sales manager revealed trucking-company customers were being cheated out of contractually set price rebates they were supposed to receive for buying certain amounts of diesel fuel. The FBI alleges Pilot Flying J kept millions of dollars by running the scheme for many years.
An FBI agent’s unsealed affidavit includes transcripts of conversations with members of Pilot Flying J’s sales team that were secretly recorded by informants. The document accuses Haslam of knowing about the alleged scam.
When asked Tuesday whether he knew about the fraud, Haslam declined to answer as he walked away from reporters and said, “I can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who met with Haslam on April 23, has said the league was not aware of the federal investigation when it approved Haslam’s ownership. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello also said the league has no plans to ask Haslam to forfeit operational control of the Browns during the investigation. But as the legal process unfolds, the league could change its stance. No charges have been filed in the case, and Haslam has maintained his innocence.
Haslam has placed several members of Pilot Flying J’s sales team on administrative leave, and University of Memphis interim president Brad Martin has been appointed to oversee the company’s internal investigation. Martin is a board member of Pilot Flying J, and in 1999, he hired Haslam’s brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, as an executive at Saks Inc. Prominent white-collar crime attorney Reid Weingarten has been hired to manage the probe and submit a report to a special committee headed by Martin.
Reiterating points he has made while delivering previous statements in Knoxville, Haslam said he’s “very embarrassed” by the scandal and realizes Pilot Flying J’s reputation has been tarnished.
“I’ve been out calling on trucking companies, first of all apologizing, and second of all, asking for a second chance because this is not how we act, not how we treat people, and we’re going to begin to rebuild our reputation,” Haslam said. “We understand it will take a long time to do, but hey, we’re big boys. We’ve been in business 54 years, and I hope we’re in business another 54 years, candidly.”
In addition to the ongoing criminal investigation, several trucking companies have filed civil lawsuits against Pilot Flying J. The company hired Nashville lawyer Aubrey Harwell, who represented former San Francisco 49ers owner and Youngstown native Eddie DeBartolo Jr. while he was at the center of a federal probe into a fraud scandal. In 2000, DeBartolo surrendered ownership of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, after pleading guilty in 1998 to a felony charge of failing to report that ex-Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards allegedly extorted $400,000 from him in exchange for a riverboat gambling license.
Haslam, though, sounded as if he’s not worried about his status as owner of the Browns. He told fans they will “love” outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the team’s recent first-round draft pick, praised the front office’s trade for former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess and touted the approach of the new coaching staff.
“I went to practice the other day, and we’re not throwing 3-yard dinks,” Haslam said. “We’re throwing the ball down the field and that’s the way [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] likes to play. And you’re going to really like the way [defensive coordinator] Ray Horton plays defense. He plays defense the way I like to play defense. He gets after them.”
Despite Haslam’s uncertain future, he also vowed to keep a promise he first made last summer when he struck a deal to buy the Browns.
“I pledge to you we’re going to do everything we possibly can to bring a winner to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio because this area deserves it,” he said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.