By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear Thursday that, for now, the league will continue to stand by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam amid a federal investigation into a fraud scheme orchestrated by Pilot Flying J, the truck-stop empire run by Haslam and owned by his family.
“Jimmy Haslam is a man of great integrity,” said Goodell, who made an appearance at the Browns’ headquarters to promote safety at a “Heads Up Football” youth skills clinic. “We’re proud to have him as an owner in the NFL and think he’s going to be a great owner for the Cleveland Browns and their fans here.
“He’s as disappointed as anybody in what happened at Pilot J. He’s working hard to fix it and correct those issues, both from a structural standpoint and to make amends. He’s kept me very much involved. I think, as he tells me I was one of his first calls to inform me what was happening after he learned about it, and he’s been great at keeping us informed.”
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J April 15 in Knoxville, Tenn., and an affidavit made public days later alleges that Haslam had knowledge of fuel rebate fraud that cheated trucking-company customers out of millions of dollars. So far, seven former Pilot Flying J employees have pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Goodell said Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J, has told him privately what he has maintained publicly — that he didn’t know about the fraud scheme until the FBI released its affidavit.
“Yes, absolutely [I asked him if he knew about the fraud],” Goodell said. “And he’s been very clear that he’s had no knowledge of that, and he’s been clear publicly and clear with you all.”
In addition to the criminal investigation, about 20 trucking companies have filed civil lawsuits against Pilot Flying J. Eight of those companies have reached a preliminary settlement agreement, and Haslam has sent checks to several businesses in an effort to make restitution.
“He’s been very proactive,” Goodell said. “He’s made numerous statements about it. I think he’s taken responsibility for it. He’s spoken up. As I said before, he’s a man of integrity. This company has meant a lot to him and his family, and he’s more determined than ever to make it right.”
Some question whether Haslam’s finances could be drained enough to force him to sell the team, which he bought from Randy Lerner last year for about $1 billion.
When training camp opened to the public July 25, Haslam tried to alleviate concerns that he’ll be forced to sell the Browns. Haslam, who attended practice Thursday in a blue button-down shirt featuring a Pilot Flying J logo, insisted there are no cash-flow issues to fear, and he’s optimistic about the outcome of the investigation.
“The fans should not worry,” Haslam said. “Our family is going to own this asset for a long, long time.”
Goodell said he has no reason to doubt Haslam’s hopeful attitude about the probe.
“You know, most of my reports are coming from Jimmy, and he shares everything else, and I have every reason to believe him,” Goodell said. “We have not been given anything that would be inconsistent with that.”
Goodell repeatedly sidestepped questions about what the league’s course of action would be in the event Haslam is indicted.
“We’re not going to play the hypothetical game,” Goodell said. “Right now, he’s addressing the issues. We’re confident he’s going to deal with it properly.”
But at what point would the league become more involved?
“Right now, this is an issue where he’s had some people in his organization that have obviously not conducted themselves in a way that’s consistent with what he wants,” Goodell said. “He’s fixing it, and he’s got to do that. Those things happen in big organizations.
“Jimmy is more disappointed than anybody. But I don’t think it’s a matter for us at this moment.”
Goodell was asked if NFL owners accused of crimes would be disciplined similarly to players accused of crimes.
“We actually hold ownership to a higher standard and management,” Goodell said. “And I think we’ve proven that in what we’ve done. It’s not just accused. As you know, in our policy, oftentimes we let the criminal process unfold because you need to do that to find out the real facts. Sometimes we don’t have all the facts, and we need to do that. What we look at is multiple offenders. As you know, that’s a real focus for us.”
The league’s owners unanimously approved Haslam’s purchase of the Browns in October after the NFL’s finance committee also gave its blessing. The FBI has been investigating Pilot Flying J since May 2011.
Goodell, though, defended the league’s vetting process, insisting it wasn’t flawed.
“No, I don’t think [it was flawed],” Goodell said. “This was a surprise to [Haslam] and to his senior level management. From that standpoint, I don’t think he was aware of it, and I don’t know any way we could have been aware of it. It was not disclosed to us.”
Haslam bought a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008, so the league examined him then. However, Goodell said the NFL did not cut corners last year while vetting Haslam a second time.
“No, we go through the same process on any circumstance,” Goodell said. “When you’re going through a controlling ownership position, that’s a big step up so we don’t just pass that off. We do the same vetting process. Obviously he knows people in the league after being an owner, so there were certain aspects of that which were easier. But we didn’t short-circuit anything.”
Goodell conceded the scandal is not ideal for the Browns or the league.
“You never want to see this kind of thing happen, particularly to a partner in the league,” Goodell said. “So obviously his partners care a great deal about him, and as a partner they want to see him getting off to a good start. This is not what anybody intended, not anybody anticipated, but he’s a man that I think everyone truly respects in the NFL.”
Goodell, though, shot down the idea that the probe will distract the Browns.
“I don’t believe it’s distracting anybody in that building, and that’s what really matters at the end of the day,” Goodell said. “And Jimmy obviously is focused on that, but he’s got a lot of great people that he hired to do the job. He always intended to stay involved with Pilot J.”
Goodell also expressed confidence that Haslam can still bring a winner to Cleveland.
“I think Jimmy Haslam came into this with a mindset that he was going to do everything possible to get this franchise turned around in a positive direction and a team that this community will be proud of, not just in any single year, but consistently and to create a winner,” Goodell said. “And he’s brought in great talent. He’s brought in great people. He set the organization obviously in a different direction. I think that’s all positive and good for the fans here and ultimately good for the NFL.”
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.