Browns owner Jimmy Haslam consistently has denied knowledge of the customer rebate fraud that has resulted in seven federal guilty pleas and counting at Pilot Flying J, the truck-stop company Haslam runs.
On Thursday, Commissioner Roger Goodell supplied the strongest statement yet from the league in support of Haslam.
“Jimmy Haslam is a man of great integrity,” Goodell said at a press conference held in connection with a USA Heads Up Football clinic, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We’re proud to have him as an owner in the NFL and think he’s going to be a great owner for the Cleveland Browns and their fans here. He’s as disappointed as anybody in what happened at Pilot [Flying] J and he’s working hard to fix it and correct those issues, both from a structural standpoint and to make amends. He’s kept me very much involved. I think . . . as he tells me I was one of his first calls to inform me what was happening after he learned about it and he’s been great at keeping us informed.”
Goodell added that Haslam has told the league the same thing Haslam has told the public.
“He’s been very clear that he’s had no knowledge of that and he’s been clear publicly and clear with you all,” Goodell said.
The league has absorbed some criticism for approving Haslam’s purchase of the Browns without knowing about the federal investigation. Some has suggested that Haslam’s status as a minority owner of the Steelers made the approval process for the Browns purchase perfunctory.
“When you’re going through a controlling ownership position, that’s a big step up so we don’t just pass that off,” Goodell said. “We do the same vetting process. Obviously he knows people in the league after being an owner, so there were certain aspects of that which were easier. But we didn’t short-circuit anything. . . . This was a surprise to him and his senior level management. From that standpoint I don’t think he was aware of it and I don’t know any way we could have been aware of it. It was not disclosed to us.”
Goodell has a point. The investigation occurred secretly, with recorded conversations and confidential informants. Before April 15, 2013, only the FBI and IRS and a small handful of employees knew what was happening.
Still, when Goodell says the situation was a “surprise” to senior management, it overlooks the contents of one of the seven plea deals, which states that senior management was aware of the scam.
Either way, the league — which has the resources to do its own investigation — apparently is confident that Haslam is telling the truth. If/when Haslam faces criminal charges, the league will have to revisit the decision to take Haslam at his word. An indictment essentially would mean that, in the opinion of the federal government, Haslam didn’t tell the NFL the truth.
As those who have lied to Goodell in the past have learned the hard way, that’s not a good idea.