The Associated Press
CLEVELAND — Browns owner Jimmy Haslam pledged to continue running his family’s business — and NFL team — amid a federal investigation into fraud within his company.
Haslam said Friday he has no plans to step aside as president of Pilot Flying J despite federal authorities alleging he was aware of a widespread scheme to defraud customers of the truck stop chain. According to court documents, sales team members said Haslam was aware that employees withheld diesel price rebates and discounts from Pilot customers to boost the company’s profits and sales commissions.
After spending one day at the Browns’ headquarters in Berea, Haslam returned to Tennessee to profess his innocence and make it clear he wasn’t stepping down during the probe.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, why would I do that?’ Candidly, I haven’t done anything wrong, No. 1,” Haslam said at Pilot’s headquarters in Knoxville. “No. 2, if there’s ever a time the company needs our leadership, it’s right now.”
Haslam did not address the Browns while talking to reporters. He also refused to answer questions after making his remarks, which were distributed to the media afterward.
But later, during an appearance at the University of Tennessee, Haslam told AP his role with the Browns would remain the same.
“No change. I look forward to the draft next week,” he said.
This will be the Browns’ first draft under Haslam, who bought the franchise last year from Randy Lerner for just over $1 billion. Lerner still maintains 30 percent of the team, but that will be transferred to Haslam in four years.
Earlier, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had no plans to ask Haslam to step aside while the FBI investigates his involvement in the alleged scheme.
Aiello said in an email that the league is not concerned about the daily operations of the Browns and that “there are no such plans” to have Haslam remove himself temporarily from the team.
Haslam’s second meeting this week with reporters came one day after a 120-page affidavit was unsealed in Knoxville. The document says Haslam knew about a fraud scheme committed by top sales officials in the company that targeted some unsophisticated trucking companies.
Haslam stepped down as Pilot’s CEO shortly after his purchase of the Browns was approved by NFL owners in October. However, he returned to the company in February, saying he needed to be involved in the business, which his father started in 1958.
Cleveland has the No. 6 overall pick in next week’s draft. On Thursday, Browns CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi gave few hints about the team’s plans. Haslam is trying to turn around a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2002 and is on its sixth head coach since 1999.
As Haslam wrapped up his availability on Friday, he was asked if he’ll lead the Browns to a Super Bowl.
“Eventually, yes” he said, smiling.