No matter what the Browns do when the first round of the NFL Draft unfolds tonight, the federal investigation into owner Jimmy Haslam’s family business and the uncertainty the franchise faces as a result will lurk in the background.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters he met with Haslam on Tuesday about the probe targeting the Tennessee billionaire’s truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J.
Goodell, who addressed the media Wednesday in New York during pre-draft festivities, was asked if he’s concerned about the investigation.
“Well, of course, [you’re concerned] when you have that type of thing, but I’ve spoken with Jimmy several times and met with him,” Goodell said. “Jimmy is doing everything he’s asked. He’s cooperating. He wants to make sure that he is doing all of the right things in that regard, and he has assured us that he is going to.”
Haslam, through a spokesperson, said, “It was a good meeting, but we cannot expand beyond the commissioner’s comments.”
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J April 15 in Knoxville, Tenn. In an affidavit unsealed last week, the FBI accuses Pilot Flying J of running a fraud scheme to keep millions of dollars owed to trucking companies as gas rebates. Court documents allege Haslam, the CEO of Pilot Flying J, knew about the fraud.
No charges have been filed in the case. The ongoing investigation began in 2011, but Goodell said the league was not aware of it before the raid. NFL owners unanimously approved Haslam’s $1 billion purchase of the Browns from Randy Lerner on Oct. 16.
“It’s an investigation, and it was held very tightly by the FBI and the authorities,” Goodell said. “They didn’t share this information with us and they shouldn’t. That’s something that is their prerogative.”
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said last week the league had no plans to ask Haslam to relinquish operational control of the Browns during the investigation. There is obviously a chance the league could change its stance as the legal process evolves.
Since the raid, Haslam has maintained his innocence. On Monday, he announced five steps Pilot Flying J is taking in an attempt to address the issues raised in the investigation, including placing several members of its diesel-fuel sales team on administrative leave.
Haslam plans to be stationed at the Browns’ headquarters in Berea during the draft, which runs tonight through Saturday.
Picking players might provide a distraction for the Browns, who have the sixth overall selection, and their fans. However, Haslam’s situation will continue to hover like a dark cloud.
Browns outside linebacker Quentin Groves was arrested April 17 and charged with solicitation, according to a police report obtained by the Beacon Journal on Wednesday.
During a prostitution sting operation conducted by Orange Village and Beachwood police and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, a female officer acting as an escort received several sex-for-hire phone calls, according to the police report. Groves called, requested “full service” and said he would bring condoms. He agreed to one hour of time for $100 and was told an additional service would cost $20.
Groves, 28, arrived at room 231 of the Homestead Guest Studios in Orange Village at approximately 10:28 p.m., knocked on the door and was taken into custody without incident before being released, according to the police report. He is set to appear May 10 in Bedford Municipal Court. Police seized $195.70 and a box of condoms.
“I want to apologize to the Browns organization, our fans and the city of Cleveland for putting myself in this situation,” Groves, who has a wife and two children, said in a statement.
“I realize I let a lot of people down, most importantly my family. I am committed to learning from this and moving forward.”
Groves joined the Browns March 13 by signing a two-year, $2.8 million contract. The arrest occurred in the midst of the team’s voluntary minicamp, which ran April 16-18.
The Browns are seriously considering a trade for Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess, 27, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Several teams are in the mix for Bess, who caught 61 passes for 778 yards and one touchdown in 13 games last season, and the compensation would be mid-round draft picks, according to the report. Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net reported sources told him there’s a 99.9 percent chance Bess is dealt to the Browns. … The Oakland Raiders might be trying to trade down from the third overall pick in the draft with the Browns as a possible partner, Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports reported. Silver speculated the Browns would target Brigham Young defensive end/outside linebacker Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah if they made the move. When asked at the NFL owners meeting in March if the Browns could trade up, Haslam said, “I think that’s doubtful.”