Here we go again, Cleveland.
Set aside for a moment the question of how deeply Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is involved in the FBI investigation of his truck-stop company, Pilot Flying J. Haslam could be squeaky clean — he maintains he is, although the FBI’s 120-page affidavit suggests otherwise — but even the hint of impropriety brings shame to a Browns franchise that has become a tragicomedy.
Just when you think it can’t get worse — lose on drive; lose on fumble; lose team; just plain lose — the owner who was supposed to save the day is busy trying to save his company.
Central to the FBI probe is a fraud scheme lasting “many years” that involves millions of dollars in gas rebates withheld from customers, of which Haslam knew about, according to court documents filed by the FBI.
Haslam said yesterday that “I haven’t done anything wrong,” adding that the investigation focuses on “a small percentage of our overall diesel-fuel business.”
But something to remember. Government investigators also like catching the biggest fish, not necessarily the smelliest. The FBI might employ catch-and-release with some of the small-fry employees central to the investigation. Haslam would be a keeper.
Haslam’s involvement with the Browns surely is being discussed by NFL owners, who are a band of brothers only until the whisper of “corporate criminal behavior” enters the fraternity house. Then it’s toss Jonah overboard to save the ship.
The NFL front office released a statement yesterday saying “there are no such plans” to ask Haslam to step aside while the investigation continues.”
Yet. Consider the descent of former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who was fined by the NFL for his role in a riverboat gambling scandal. DeBartolo also had to relinquish control of the team for one year in 1999. Eventually, he turned operations over to his sister.
Alan Milstein, a Philadelphia lawyer with experience in dealing with the NFL, summarized Haslam’s situation as, “Everything is at risk. It’s still early, but certainly there’s a morality clause where the NFL could come in and strip him of ownership.”
Long term, what it all means for the Browns and their fans depends on how the investigation plays out. In the most basic but perhaps most important sense, Haslam’s leadership comes into question, because it is his company under review.
I wrote in January, when the Browns fired Pat Shurmer and began their search for a new coach:
“It takes leadership to find leaders, which is why Cleveland’s chances for sustainable success rest even more on Haslam than on the coach. Look at the top branch of any business to understand why it failed. Where leadership lags, so does success.”
Even if Haslam is innocent of skullduggery, he ultimately must answer for the actions of his employees, even if they are rogue workers operating illegally. That doesn’t mean he should take the full fall for any bad seeds on the payroll, but some penalty — financial? — must be incurred.
In the short term, Browns fans must suffer the insult of another owner who let them down. If Art Modell is the ultimate villain, then Haslam is at least an accomplice to a crime of the awkward. He is guilty of putting Clevelanders through a discomfort not of their own doing.
Haslam answered one query on his way out the door of yesterday’s “no questions, please” news conference.
“Will you take the Browns to a Super Bowl?” someone asked.
“Eventually, yes,” the owner said.
After this embarrassment, it is the least he can do.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.