By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
As he wades through the legal process of defending his Pilot Flying J corporation through a federal investigation and at least 18 civil lawsuits, Jimmy Haslam said in an exclusive interview with ESPN Cleveland that he has no intention of selling the Browns.
Asked if he could envision any scenario in which that would change, Haslam said, “Absolutely not. We plan on owning the Browns for a long time.”
Rumors of a possible sale intensified recently after a Wall Street Journal article reported Pilot Flying J, the truck stop and diesel fuel company founded by Haslam’s father and now run by Haslam, had nearly doubled its debt to $4 billion.
Haslam would not comment on the story. In a telephone conversation, he seemed particularly irritated about the rumors of a possible sale of the Browns.
“Since October, we put together a completely new front office, hired a new head head coach with two really good coordinators, sold naming rights to the stadium, and went through free agency and the draft,” Haslam said.
Most of that football business occurred before Haslam’s Pilot Flying J headquarters was raided by FBI and IRS agents on April 15. An affidavit used to secure search warrants spelled out a scheme in which Pilot sales executives withheld fuel rebates to defraud trucking companies.
Five Pilot employees have been charged with crimes and three have accepted plea deals in which they agreed to help in the federal investigation. Haslam has denied any knowledge of the scheme and has pledged to repay with interest any company that was shorted. Still, 18 trucking companies have filed suit against Pilot Flying J.
Haslam declined to talk about any part of the investigation. To emphasize that he has no plans to sell the Browns, he cited the investment he has committed to the franchise since the April 15 FBI raid.
“We’ve spent $5 million remodeling (team headquarters in) Berea. And we’re working on an upwards of $100 million remodeling of the stadium. We’ve been very committed to turning this franchise around.”
Haslam said the $100 million-plus in improvements will come in two phases – one after the 2013 season and one after the 2014 season. These do not include “fan experience” improvements, such as new WiFi service, that will be in effect for the 2013 season, he said.
“Things that we can do fairly quickly will come this year,” he said. “The big things, i.e. a new scoredboard, will come after the ’14 season.”
Haslam said team executives have had “five or six” meetings about the long-range stadium improvement plan. He said that the plans, pending approval by the city of Cleveland, would be detailed in an announcement in the near future.
At the same time, Haslam “has been working hand-in-glove” with the NFL as the investigation of his company ensues, according to a separate league source.
“He is taking direction and he is taking advice (from the NFL),” said the source. “They even have a plan in place in the event there is an indictment (of Haslam) to maintain ownership of the Browns during the legal process.”
Asked about the existence of such a contingency plan, Haslam said, “I don’t want to answer any legal questions.”
Haslam said he intended to be in attendance for the first team training camp practice open to fans on July 25.
“I won’t be there for every practice but we’ll be there frequently,” he said. “And I am genuinely excited.”
“We look forward to owning the team for a long time to come. I can’t emphasize how committed we are to bringing a winner to Cleveland,” Haslam said.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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