FBI probe hangs over Haslam, BrownsPublished 12:36am Monday, April 22, 2013
BEREA (AP) — Amid a deepening fraud investigation involving his truck stop empire, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III joined his football operations staff at work to prepare for their first draft with the franchise.
Haslam, who purchased the Browns for $1.05 billion in October, arrived in Cleveland three days after FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents executed four search warrants at his Pilot Flying J company headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn.
According to an FBI agent’s affidavit released Thursday night, an employee of the company told authorities that Pilot Flying J CEO Haslam knew about rebate fraud at the truck stop chain. Haslam’s family — including his brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam — owns 59 percent of the business.
Haslam wasn’t made available to the media by the Browns, but did release a statement.
“I’ve read the affidavits,” Haslam said. “I now understand more clearly the questions the federal investigators are exploring. I maintain that the foundation of this company is built on its integrity and that any willful wrongdoing by any employee of this company at any time is intolerable.
“We will continue to cooperate with the federal investigation and continue our own investigation in these allegations. I value the relationships we have with our customers, our vendors and our team members across this country and regret that they have to go through this with us, but I trust and believe their faith in this company and its principles has never been misplaced.”
While the federal investigation into Pilot Flying J continues, Browns CEO Joe Banner said Haslam has jumped right back into his football job. Cleveland has the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft.
“This is the first year Jimmy has really owned the team and has the chance to put his imprint on it, so I think he’s excited in general,” Banner said. “We’re glad to have him here. He asks good questions. He’s a good asset to have as an owner.
“Jimmy isn’t in there, watching film (of potential draft picks), but he’s very involved with our entire process.”
At a Tuesday press conference in Knoxville, Haslam revealed the government is investigating rebates offered by the truck stop chain, but said, “We believe we did nothing wrong.” His family — including his brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam — owns 59 percent of the business.
Haslam added that he has not been subpoenaed and no Pilot Flying J employees have been arrested, but subpoenas were issued to several members of the company’s 23-person sales force.
“Jimmy made a statement about that the other day, and there’s not much I can add to it,” Banner said. “Everything I can and want to say about this, I already have. I can tell you that the Browns’ operations are the same as they’ve always been.”
Haslam’s visit coincided with the third and final day of Cleveland’s first voluntary minicamp under new coach Rob Chudzinski. Former Philadelphia Eagles executive Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi also are in their initial season with the Browns, who went 5-11 last year and have not made the playoffs since 2002.
“Jimmy has said it himself, he’s an impatient person,” Banner said. “He’s going through the same thing we’re all going through, trying to balance the need to win now with our plan of building a team that can sustain long-term success. We don’t want to have a team that makes the playoffs once, then falls back out of contention for a number of years.”
The first step toward Cleveland achieving that goal is the draft, which takes place from April 25-27. Lombardi indicated the Browns’ top priorities are a pass rusher and a cornerback, but would not rule out picking a quarterback to compete with incumbent Brandon Weeden and recent signee Jason Campbell.
“It certainly is all about fit,” said Lombardi, who previously worked with Banner in Philadelphia and spent the last five seasons as an NFL Network analyst. “Like every year, there are some quarterbacks that do some positive things, but it comes down to terms of value with the pick.”
Assistant general manager Ray Farmer and Chudzinski will be seated with Haslam, Banner and Lombardi at the head table in Cleveland’s draft room. None were part of the organization at this time last year, when team president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert Jr., and coach Pat Shurmur ran the process for then-owner Randy Lerner.
“Joe and I have sat in the room before,” Lombardi said. “It’s football. It’s just football. Coach Chud has handled that, and (Joe) has handled it, as well. You have to work out every player in the draft and you better know them all.”
Banner said the Browns’ plan is “to build a consensus” when they go on the clock, rather than taking a vote on which player to draft in the first round. Cleveland does not have a second-round selection, making it essential to hit on its opening pick.
No one in the organization is more aware of that than Haslam, who is an avid football fan and a major supporter of the University of Tennessee’s team.
“Jimmy is very excited, which is why he’ll be with us for the next two days, as scheduled all along,” Banner said, indirectly referring to the Pilot Flying J situation. “He’ll also be here almost all of next week, and of course for the draft itself.
“There is a lot of pressure — mostly self-imposed, really — for us to be successful. Jimmy is a big part of our efforts to do that.”
NOTES: The Browns held a two-hour morning practice outside under sunny skies. The temperature was 74 degrees. “We’ve got a little Cleveland sun and a Lake Erie breeze today,” Chudzinski said. “I’m glad we got out here.” The first two minicamp sessions were held inside the Browns’ fieldhouse because their four grass fields were recently aerated. … NFL veteran Shayne Graham and undrafted rookie Brandon Bogotay shared the kicking duties, but neither is guaranteed of a roster spot in the regular season. “We’ll continue to look at the kicker position going forward and see what other guys are out there,” Chudzinski said. Phil Dawson was Cleveland’s kicker from 1999-2012, but signed with San Francisco after the Browns did not offer him a contract.