Amid growing controversy over his embarrassing legal business problems, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam apologized to fans and promised to deliver a winning team Monday at a National Football Foundation event in Westlake, Ohio.
It was one of Haslam's first public appearances in Ohio since April 15, when investigators from the IRS and FBI raided the Knoxville, Tenn., headquarters of Pilot Flying J, which was accused of perpetrating an elaborate fraud rebate scheme against its truck stop customers.
Haslam, who bought the team from Randy Lerner last year, was among featured speakers Monday in an event that included current and former Ohio State football coaches Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel.
According to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, after giving the event's opening address, Haslam talked with local media for about 10 minutes but did not respond to questions, including one about the FBI believing he knew about the rebate scheme.
"I apologize to the city of Cleveland, Northeastern Ohio and all Browns fans because the last thing we ever wanted to do as a new owner was detract from football and the Browns and just what a great football area this is," Haslam said. "So I apologize for that. We feel badly about it, and we're very comfortable we'll work through this situation."
Regardless of the legal challenges, Haslam said what Browns fans wanted to hear most.
"I think we'll have a better football team this year," he said. "We're going to do this the right way. It's not going to happen overnight. You don't go from winning 14 games in three years to winning 14 games in one year. But we will have a better team this year, and we'll be better in 2014."
He reiterated that he was committed to winning.
"I want to win because we're competitive and anybody that's competitive wants to win, but having been in this area, I want to win more for you all, the fans of Cleveland, because I've never seen fan support like this in the Cleveland area," he said. "It's incredible. I pledge to you we're going to do everything we possibly can to bring a winner to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio because this area deserves it."
After politely but firmly refusing to answer media questions, Haslam chatted with some Browns employees before leaving the building through a rear door more than an hour before the event ended.
At the heart of the legal issue are allegations that Haslam was aware that Pilot Flying J was intentionally defrauding customers by shorting them on rebates which, according to one company vice president, raked in $450,000 a month.
The FBI and IRS announced that the truck stop chain and several key employees were the subject of an investigation. The Pilot Flying J headquarters was raided and locked down.
Haslam announced that he placed several members of the Pilot administrative staff on leave while the legal matter is rectified. Haslam said an independent investigation of "what did or did not happen" is under way and could be completed by July.
The day before the NFL Draft, league commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters that the investigation came as a huge surprise to the NFL. He said the league was unaware of the FBI and IRS investigations of Pilot Flying J last year before Haslam purchased the Browns for more than $1 billion.
According to testimony in documents secured by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Haslam had knowledge of a scheme within Pilot.
John Freeman, a company vice president, was quoted saying that Haslam "knew all along that I was cost-plussin' this guy. He knew it all along. Loved it. We were makin' $450,000 on him. Why wouldn't he love it."
Haslam ranks No. 360 on Forbes' list of wealthiest Americans. Most of his fortune comes from his 35 percent share of the family's 59 percent ownership in the privately held truck stop company, according to Forbes.
Haslam's purchase of the Browns was approved last October, giving him 70 percent of the team and the ability to buy the remaining 30 percent from Lerner over the next four years.
However, Haslam's ability to get that future money may already have been compromised. In reaction to the FBI and IRS investigation, the ratings service agency Moody's Investors Service told the Plain Dealer that it has placed Pilot Travel Centers, Haslam's parent company, on review for a ratings downgrade, which would make money more expensive and more difficult to acquire.