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The Haslam Fraud Plot Thickens

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Pilot Flying J's recent troubles have halted the optimism Haslam was starting to build in Cleveland. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.
Pilot Flying J's recent troubles have halted the optimism Haslam was starting to build in Cleveland. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.

During the Cleveland Browns’ annual pre-NFL Draft press conference last Thursday, CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi laughed off several questions regarding the investigation into alleged fraud at team owner Jimmy Haslam’s Pilot Flying J travel centers.

Several hours later, the laughing stopped when a 120-page FBI affadavit was unsealed alleging that Pilot Flying J – owned by the Haslam family – engaged in a fraud scheme designed to keep money owed to its customers. The document also alleged by multiple current and former employees of the company that Haslam, the CEO, was aware of the fraud and was present at meetings when it was discussed.

At that moment, the situation ceased being an issue just in Cleveland and Knoxville, Tenn., where Pilot Flying J is headquartered, and became an ongoing major national story both in business and sports circles.

Last Monday, just as news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon was breaking, it was also being reported that FBI and IRS agents clad in bulletproof vests had raided Pilot Flying J headquarters and confiscated documents and other items.

All this comes just six months after Haslam’s purchase of the Browns for $1.05 billion last Oct. 16.

Haslam has maintained all along that his company has done nothing wrong and remains upbeat, saying he will not step down from his position at Pilot Flying J and will continue to be involved in the Browns’ planning for this week’s NFL Draft as the club tries to get back into contention in the AFC North.

It would be dangerous and unethical at this point to speculate what will happen from here or how long it will take to get more clarity on the situation. But suffice to say, with the FBI and IRS involved, this is obviously a serious issue. At the same time, though, the fact Haslam has remained steadfast in his confidence that no wrongdoing has occurred is compelling.

And just as it has caused seismic waves in Tennessee, a state in which the Haslams are one of the leading families, the situation has done the same in Cleveland, where what the owner of the Browns does and says carries more weight than that of the mayor. Really.

Fans had warmed up considerably to Haslam in a very short amount of time and he had received rave reviews from nearly all media outlets, even the most negative-leaning ones. Haslam’s outgoing, hands-on and gregarious nature is in stark contrast to the much more private persona of former Browns owner Randy Lerner.

The news is so big, in fact, that this is the first time anyone can remember that the draft has taken a back seat in this football- and Browns-crazy community, or at least shares the front seat. The Haslam situation is as much in the news as the draft.

Fans are concerned about what might happen to the Browns and Haslam’s ownership should the investigation play out into a worst-case scenario. In that way, they are shell-shocked, thinking their ownership issues were solved when Haslam bought the team.

Again, all this is speculative and only time will tell if that concern was warranted.

While this is in no way, shape or form equal to the Browns’ move to Baltimore following the 1995 season, the scope is still somewhat similar in that off-the-field issues involving the club are once again causing a major stir.

And for those Browns fans who remember that horrible time a little over a decade and a half ago, it is by no means a laughing matter, nor should it be.