With plenty of NFL observers already comparing the case against the company run by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to the case that brought down Eddie DeBartolo as owner of the 49ers, Haslam voluntarily has made another connection between the two situations.
Pilot Flying J has hired the lawyer who represented DeBartolo against federal charges in Louisiana: Aubrey Harwell, Jr., of Nashville.
Jodie Valade of the Cleveland Plain Dealer dusts off the DeBartolo case, which resulted in the popular owner stepping aside as an indictment was looming, then pleading guilty to the failure to report a felony extortion attempt in connection with the procurement of a gambling license, and ultimately receiving in 1999 a one-year suspension from former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
It’s difficult to draw parallels between the DeBartolo and Haslam situations, in part because the NFL dramatically has adjusted over the last 14 years its approach to discipline. That same year, for example, Tagliabue suspended former Rams defensive end Leonard Little only eight games after he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter while driving with nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system.
It’s also difficult to gauge Haslam’s potential responsibility. Harwell already has crafted talking points that, if accurate, would insulate Haslam and other family members from responsibility.
“I can tell you that Mr. Haslam is in and out of a lot of meetings but he was not aware of any improprieties,” Harwell told Walter F. Roche, Jr. of the Tennessean. Harwell admitted that some allegations in the 120-page affidavit filed on Thursday “cause concern,” but Harwell insists that the Haslam family “had no knowledge of any impropriety.”
The problem the company faces is that it now must determine whether improprieties occurred, and rectify them. “Senior management is going to get to the bottom of this and they will do what is right and repay any customers if they are owed anything,” Harwell said.
The bigger problem is that Pilot Flying J customers may scatter, which depending on the way Haslam structured his purchase of the Browns could disrupt his vow that it will be “business as usual” for the team.
“We feel like they got us,” Titan Transfer Inc. owner Tommy Hodges told the Tennessean. “We fit the profile of exactly what they were doing. We were in the rebate program, and we always had a tough time reconciling the checks we were getting with our records of fuel purchases.”
The affidavit filed Thursday suggests that the company would shrug the scheme off as a computer error, if/when a customer got wise to it.
“We had a feeling that the error was not an accident, but had no proof,” Morehouse Trucking manager Curt Morehouse said in a statement issued to the Associated Press. “It is now obvious from the affidavits that it was not an accident. We hope that Mr. Haslam has the courage to make whole the other companies that his company defrauded.”
And that crystallizes the dilemma Haslam faces. If he circles the wagons and insists no one did anything wrong, he risks going down with the ship. If he admits to widespread fraud, he comes off as an inept and out-of-touch manager.
In the end, the question becomes whether the feds can marshal enough evidence to prove that Haslam knew about the situation. That’s 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.