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Marla Ridenour: Browns owner Jimmy Haslam not off the hook

By Marla Ridenour Akron Beacon Journal (MCT) • Updated Jul 14, 2014 at 9:35 PM

As good as it sounded Monday with the announcement that Haslam’s Pilot Flying J truck stop corporation will avoid criminal charges if it follows stipulations of a “criminal enforcement agreement” with the federal government in its fuel rebate fraud probe, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam might not have been celebrating wildly.

Especially since the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Tennessee said the agreement “provides no protection from prosecution to any individual” and emphasized that Pilot must continue to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

There is still time for the government to find proof that Haslam had knowledge of the fraud. There is still time for the 10 former Pilot employees who have pleaded guilty to turn on him. There is still time for more to be charged.

A $92 million fine, and what the press release said was more than $56 million being reimbursed to Pilot customers, probably sounded like closure. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the NFL slaps Haslam with a penalty or fine for conduct detrimental to the league. On Monday afternoon, a league spokesman had no comment.

Haslam should be thankful the NFL welcomed him into its cash cow ranks because it surely wouldn’t if it knew then what it knows now, even if this proves to be the end.

To fans in Northeast Ohio, of more pressing concern is whether the $92 million fine will affect Browns’ football operations. With the $56 million-plus included, that’s more than $148 million being shelled out by Pilot.

I presume it won’t hurt the Browns. Pilot Flying J announced the opening of its newest travel center in Grand Junction, Colo., on Monday. That comes on the heels of another new site in Big Lake, Texas, in May. Its retail outlets number more than 650. In an April 15 story in The Tennessean on the one-year anniversary of the federal raid on Pilot headquarters in Knoxville, company spokeswoman Rachel Albright said, “Business is very good.”

The spike in Browns’ interest after they drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel can’t hurt business, either.

Above all, the Browns need continuity. The firings of Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi after last season and the hiring of coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer tagged Haslam with the reputation of an impatient meddler (although to me it seemed like a belated attempt to get it right).

But the federal investigation hung over the Browns like a black cloud. Would Haslam be indicted? Would his father or another family member be forced to take over? Would the league step in to run the team? Nothing seemed out of the realm of possibility, especially when the Browns know no bounds in the ‘Just-when-you think-you’ve-seen-it-all’ category.

According to a Pilot website set up to distribute information about the federal case, 95 percent of customers affected by the rebate fraud had been paid back as of Dec. 31. That didn’t stop Haslam from cleaning house in the Chudzinski, Banner and Lombardi purge. An owner worried about his team’s cash flow might not have been as bold.

The federal investigation might not be behind Haslam, despite 92 million reasons to the contrary. But another bombshell, like former owner Randy Lerner’s announcement of the Browns’ sale on the first day of ex-coach Pat Shurmur’s second training camp in 2012, might have been averted. (The looming suspension of receiver Josh Gordon no longer qualifies as a bombshell after his latest arrest.)

Anxious fans worried about Haslam’s fate still should not exhale. But with the first practice of 2014 on July 26, at least the black cloud has turned to gray.


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