SBD/April 22, 2013/Franchises

Haslam Professes Innocence In Investigation, But Is NFL Worried?

Haslam flew to Knoxville on Friday to hold a press conference at Pilot Flying J HQs
NFL Senior VP/PR Greg Aiello on Friday said that the league has "no plan" to ask Browns Owner and Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam to "remove himself from operational control of the franchise while the FBI investigates his company's alleged fraud scheme," according to Cabot & Reed of the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER. Haslam, who "flew back to Knoxville to conduct a Friday press conference in the boardroom of Pilot Flying J," was "upbeat." He admitted he has been "rocked back" by the FBI raid and investigation. But he "maintained his innocence" and "didn't address the Browns." A source said that Haslam "still plans to return to Cleveland" this week for the NFL Draft. ESPN's Andrew Brandt said, "This is cause for concern for the NFL. But they aren't going to do anything rash or anything soon. It's obviously not good news, but we have a long way to go before there is potential discipline. That is, unless evidence came to light that was very substantial" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 4/20). ESPN's Ed Werder reported Haslam "personally reassured employees of the Browns that his status as owner of the team is in no jeopardy whatsoever." The NFL "can’t like the fact that he’s connected to a controversy … but I’m told by league sources that they do not believe that he personally will face any charges," though some of his employees "could indeed face indictment." Werder: "They think that ultimately Jimmy Haslam will be cleared” (“NFL Live,” ESPN2, 4/19).

BLEMISH ON THE BROWNS? Haslam said that "the 'last thing I want to do' is put a blemish on the Browns" (Nashville TENNESSEAN, 4/20). But USA TODAY's Jarrett Bell wrote the raids last week on Pilot Flying J's HQs "threaten another black eye to the image of the nation's most popular sports league." A source said, "The league is very, very concerned. ... The NFL was completely blind-sided by this. The NFL found out when the records were seized. That's not a good time to find out" (USATODAY.com, 4/20). CBSSPORTS.com's Mike Freeman cited sources as saying the overall league reaction is some owners are "absolutely terrified." The source said, "More than a few owners are scared to death" (CBSSPORTS.com, 4/18). In Boston, Greg Bedard wrote the NFL and Haslam are "putting on strong public faces in the wake" of the allegations, but "behind the scenes there is a lot of worry -- in Berea, Ohio, and at the league offices" (BOSTON GLOBE, 4/21). ESPN's Tony Kornheiser said of NFL officials, “I will bet you ... that in their offices in Manhattan they are readying contingency plans right now for the possible eventuality that there would be a trial, in which case he’s going to have to step aside.” ESPN's Michael Wilbon: “Having just recently vetted Haslam, they must have been aware of some questioning.” Kornheiser added, “Maybe at some point if somebody is willing to pay $1 billion for the Cleveland Browns, which seems awfully high, maybe you look the other way” (“PTI,” ESPN, 4/19).

INVESTIGATION SHOULD NOT IMPACT TEAM: In Cleveland, Bud Shaw writes Haslam's issues "shouldn't affect the Browns on the field in 2013, certainly not to the extent" that former Owner Randy Lerner's selling of the team "did last year." The Browns now are "better built to handle this storm." Shaw: "Don't be fooled by Haslam's calm manner in front of the cameras." This is "serious." Even if the owner is as "innocent as he claims, remember the appeal he carried with him into town centered on his business acumen and his laser attention to detail after a decade of Lerner's reluctant ownership" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 4/22). SI.com's Peter King writes the "last thing the NFL needs is for the Browns to be up for sale again, not to mention that it's the last thing the Cleveland fan base needs." King: "I'm told Haslam was the cream of the crop among owner candidates when the league knew Lerner wanted to sell." If this story is "true, the league is going to have to give a once-over to its vetting process for owners, and it may have to search anew for a Cleveland savior" (SI.com, 4/22).

TRYING TO BE TRANSPARENT: Haslam said that he "wanted to be transparent and candid about the investigation." He said, "To have this type of incident happen here at Pilot Flying J is tough, truly tough. ... But we feel confident that this company is run the right way and will continue to be run the right way. We’ll cooperate with federal authorities. And at the same time, we’ll continue our own investigation. ... I’m highly confident we’ll emerge from this an even better company than we are today" (Nashville TENNESSEAN, 4/21). The AP's Schelzig & Megargee note Haslam on Friday would "not answer a reporter's question about whether he had been involved in meetings where rebate fraud was discussed." He "shrugged off suggestions he might step down." Haslam: "I thought to myself, 'Well, why would I do that?' Candidly, I haven't done anything wrong, No. 1. No. 2, if there's ever a time the company needs our leadership, it's right now." No charges have been "filed in the case" (AP, 4/20).

HASLAM'S LEVEL OF INVOLVEMENT KEY: PRO FOOTBALL TALK's Mike Florio wrote the question "becomes whether the feds can marshal enough evidence to prove that Haslam knew about the situation." That is where the situation gets "even more delicate for Haslam." If key employees who "orchestrated and implemented the scheme sense that Haslam is throwing them under the proverbial bus, they may escape into the arms of immunity from prosecution, in exchange for testifying against Haslam" (PROFOOTBALLTALK.com, 4/21). In Cleveland, Terry Pluto wrote maybe time will "indeed exonerate Haslam." But the "fact is top executives caught on tape admitting to 'cost-plussing' certain clients to raise the company's profit margin happened on his watch." It is "not always clear what Haslam knew, but this mess was taking place with him in charge." Even if "nothing comes of the fraud charges, Haslam's truck stop business will take a hit" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 4/21). Also in Cleveland, Jodie Valade wrote the case involving former 49ers Owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. in '99, in which he was removed from the position because of a federal gambling indictment, "set a precedent that might be looked at" when the case against Haslam moves forward. One "interesting similarity" is Haslam "retained Nashville attorney Aubrey Harwell on Friday, the same lawyer DeBartolo used during his trial" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 4/21).
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