Browns owner Jimmy Haslam‘s Pilot Flying J company is being investigated by the government for a scheme involving diesel fuel rebate fraud.
Many have expressed concerns that Haslam’s legal issues will impact his ability to continue to own the team. Haslam has taken a “regretful and apologetic” stance in his talks with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
When the NFL owners meet this week in Boston Haslam’s legal problems are expected to be addressed.
Don Banks of Sports Illustrated reports the NFL has said it would not ask Haslem to step aside while the investigation continues, but Haslem is believed to have three or four family members with a stake in the team’s ownership, and could deal with a suspension or a recusal by temporarily transferring the team to either one of his two grown daughters, or perhaps even his 82-year-old father, Jim Haslam, the founder and patriarch of the family business and a still very-active former University of Tennessee football player and member of the school’s 1951 national championship team.
The NFL is also not ready to lump Haslam’s legal plight in with that of a former NFL owner, ex-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who pled guilty to a federal felony charge of bribing former Louisiana governor, Edwin Edwards in 1998, receiving two years of probation, a $1 million fine and a year’s suspension from then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The key distinction in how the NFL views the two cases at this point is this, league sources say: DeBartolo was involved in an individual criminal matter, as opposed to being found responsible for a corporate act of illegality, as Haslam would seem to face.
DeBartolo admitted to his role in the bribery, and even voluntarily recused himself from control of the 49ers in December 1997, just before being indicted by a federal grand jury. Haslam has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and maintains the rebate fraud was the act of a small group of rogue employees who bent the rules for their own financial gain.
He has promised to make restitution with interest to companies who have been cheated, and to put in place a chief compliance officer to restructure and oversee the company’s rebate program.
But for now, at least according to league and team sources, the idea of Haslam having to change his long-term status in team ownership in reaction to the fraud case seems unlikely.