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Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Haslam addresses federal probe

By Pat McManamon

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam addressed the federal probe into alleged fraud at his company, Pilot Flying J, on Monday.

In a press conference filled with pointed questions, Haslam called the investigation “a distraction” in terms of running the Cleveland Browns, but again said he had “done nothing wrong.”

“I think we’ve said all along and I’ll say it again: This is embarrassing for our family, our company, and I apologize (for) any cloud it has put over the City of Cleveland or the Browns,” he said. “Nobody feels worse about that than I do.”

Pilot Flying J Travel Centers has been under investigation into alleged rebate fraud since April 15, when FBI and IRS agents raided the company’s headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn.

Seven former employees have pled guilty to criminal charges, with more indictments expected early in 2014. Haslam agreed to pay about $85 million to more than 5,000 trucking companies as part of a class-action settlement.

“The company has done everything we said we would do,” Haslam said, addressing a question about the investigation for the first time in a long time. “We’ve paid everybody back with interest. We’ve dealt with the individuals who made some very poor decisions. We’ve resolved a majority of the lawsuits. We are working closely with the government to work through these issues.

“We are confident we will have a successful, long-term outcome. Has it been a distraction for me in terms of time to spend here over the last six months?  Yes. Are we starting to move out of that phase? Yes.”

He said he did not believe the investigation would affect the Browns ability to hire a top coach. However, any coach has to take the job with the investigation ongoing.

The investigation prompted concerns about Haslam’s ownership of the team, and did not help his reputation -- especially in Cleveland, where he is still a relative newcomer.

The possibility of an indictment for the Browns owner was even brought up.

“I think the focus needs to be on the Browns and football,” Haslam said, “but let me just say this: I think we accept responsibility for what happened at our company as the person at the top. I think we’ve maintained all along that we have not done anything wrong and we are confident there will be a successful outcome.”