By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist
BEREA: Browns CEO Joe Banner did his best Wednesday to reassure fans that owner Jimmy Haslam will not be forced to sell the team in the wake of a federal investigation into Haslam’s Pilot Flying J truck-stop business.
But even then a twinge of uncertainty crept into Banner’s voice when asked if he envisioned any scenario where that might happen.
“I don’t see that scenario, but, you know … ” Banner said, his answer trailing off.
Banner understands fans’ worries about the probe into rebate fraud at Pilot Flying J. The situation came to light when its headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., was raided by the FBI and IRS on April 15. Five employees have pleaded guilty in the conspiracy to shortchange trucking companies of fuel discounts. An affidavit released in the case alleged that Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J, had knowledge of the scheme.
“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 that while the NFL “feels really good” that the investigation has not affected the way the Browns are being run, “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,” Banner said.
The Browns hold their first full-squad practice of training camp from 4-6:30 p.m. today, and Haslam is expected to attend.
Banner said that he has talked with Haslam privately about Pilot Flying J’s problems and that 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.
But Banner acknowledged that the excitement and energy generated from Haslam’s introductory news conference last Aug. 3 has changed.
“Well, I think it’s not as pure as it was, but I don’t think it’s spoiled,” Banner said. “And I think the evidence is the quality of the organization we’ve put together, the ability to recruit some of these free agents we did, we’ve started to re-sign some of our own players. I think there’s a lot of evidence that things are going just as we would have hoped they’d be going at this point.”
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. That class-action settlement was revised Wednesday, pushing back the date of fuel purchases included to Jan. 1, 2005.
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 that he didn’t feel an added sense of responsibility since news of the investigation broke and that he and Haslam have been “totally in sync” running the Browns. Banner said he has heard no reservations from sponsors about their involvement.
“Not that they’ve expressed,” Banner said. “I don’t mean this to say the wrong way, but we’ve sold more season tickets than the Browns have sold since at least the return here. More suites, more club seats, more new marketing partnerships. So there’s a lot of optimism and positive feeling about where the franchise is heading and I think it started with him taking over, leading the team and the vision he had and the team we’ve put together to run it.”
Banner conceded that it was “a surprise” to him when Pilot Flying J was raided.
“But I’ve had a chance to get to know Jimmy. A focus of his was doing things the right way, doing things with integrity from the first moments I met him,” Banner said. “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.”
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.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.