FBI Investigating Browns Owner
By Steven King
For whatever reason, Browns ownership has been an issue going all the way back to the day 17½ years ago when Art Modell said, “I had no choice,” in deciding to move the original franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 season and in the process forever becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in Cleveland.
As the Browns were re-born and took the field again in 1999, things took a nosedive when Al Lerner, a determined and savvy owner who didn’t want to be second-best in anything, died Oct. 23, 2002, exactly four years to the day after he had gotten the keys to the building, so to speak, following his purchase of the expansion club.
The team was then bequeathed to Lerner’s son, Randy, who, while realizing the importance of the Browns, and of running them, wanted no part of doing it. When nothing he tried, worked, in his effort to make the Browns a winner, he looked to sell the team and finally found a man who had the passion for ownership that he lacked.
That man was – is – Jimmy Haslam, who was announced as the owner in waiting just as training camp was starting last year, and then officially took over last Oct. 16 when the other NFL owners approved the sale.
It was love at first sight for Browns fans, who are attracted to the fact that Haslam’s outgoing, hands-on, go-out-and-meet-the-people personality is 180 dergrees different than Lerner’s fervent desire to stay out of the spotlight at all costs.
But not long after Haslam resigned as CEO of his Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J travel center business to concentrate on resurrecting the Browns, he decided to go back to his old job because he said that was his first love.
That created a real sense of uneasiness for Browns fans, who want their owner to be as committed as they are. Haslam assured them that he is, and they stepped back and are giving him a chance to prove it.
Now comes something that makes the fans – and everybody else, for that matter, including Haslam – even more uneasy.
Agents from the FBI and IRS – clad in bullet-proof vests, no less -- raided Pilot headquarters on Monday, confiscating all kinds of materials.
Haslam said in a press conference on Tuesday in Knoxville that the issue is rebates that were supposed to have been paid to a small group of trucking companies. He said the company, “of course,” disagrees that it did anything wrong.
Haslam also said that while he’s not sure how long it will take for the matter to be resolved, he’s preparing for it to be a long time.
And to a Cleveland TV station that hurried a reporter across three states to the news conference, Haslam said that the last thing he wants to do is put a blemish on the Browns and/or Cleveland.
But that’s exactly what has already happened.
Instead of the opening of the NFL Draft next Thursday night and what the team will do with its pick at No. 6 overall, or the release of the NFL schedule this Thursday night and the excitement that always brings, the focus for the Browns right now – and for the foreseeable future -- is on Haslam, Pilot Flying J and how all this is going to turn out.
It may well have a happy ending – Browns fans, and Haslam, can only hope so – but until that happens, a Terminal Tower-sized cloud of controversy and uncertainly is hovering over the team like a pall.
It’s not what the Browns wanted – or needed – as they try to move forward and get themselves back on track. Like the questions at quarterback, the lack of a shutdown cornerback to go along with Joe Haden, the lack of a competent tight end, a central piece in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s vertical passing game, the need to get more linebackers for defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 scheme and the need to get another safety to play alongside T.J. Ward, the raid on Pilot Flying J headquarters is just another issue – in this case, a huge issue – the Browns have to wade through.
So with no other alternative, grab your hip boots and let’s go.