Jimmy Haslam confident despite Pilot Flying J FBI investigation; gives message to Browns fans

Haslam gives appology to Cleveland, Browns fans

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - You couldn't tell Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam was feeling any stress or pressure when he walked into a conference room filled with reporters.

His company is in the middle of a large scale FBI and IRS investigation, but you wouldn't know it based on his reassuring demeanor.

Pilot Flying J Headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn. was placed on lockdown on April 15 while 30 federal agents combed the offices for information.

Haslam believes the investigation is centered on rebates to a small number of trucking company customers who buy fuel in large quantities, but he didn't seem concerned in the least.

The trucking companies allege the promised rebates went unpaid.

It was the first time I met Haslam, who had a firm handshake, was quick with a kind word, direct and extremely personable. I expected nothing less after watching him in the media handle the massive purchase of our beloved Cleveland Browns without breaking a sweat.

But as I walked into the Pilot Flying J headquarters, I was still wondering how Haslam would deal with this very different kind of scrutiny -- both the FBI and IRS on his doorstep.

I didn't take long to get my answer.

Haslam was clearly in command, looking like a man who had nothing to hide, despite the uncertainty of a federal investigation that could loom for months. Before I asked my question, I explained I was from NewsChannel5 in Cleveland. I first told Haslam it's good to be here. He quickly responded with a smile.

"It's great to have you here," he said to me.

I asked the Browns owner to respond to any concerns Cleveland residents and Browns fans might have about the ongoing investigation. Haslam's expression exploded into a grin, as he gave an answer filled with sincerity and a boyish enthusiasm.

"First of all, I apologize. The last thing we want to do is put any kind of blemish on the city of Cleveland, which we've grown to love, or the Browns," Haslam said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I personally feel bad about that, even though I don't think we did anything wrong."

Haslam gave the answer in front of the entire Knoxville press corps without hesitation, even though four federal search warrants remain sealed in a probe that has not yet revealed its magnitude.

Haslam insisted he had no idea why the case should involve the IRS.

"That is what I asked, why is the IRS involved?" said Haslam. "It does not involve, as best we can tell and I'm pretty sure we're right, any kind of tax issues. I feel very confident it does not."

Another thing that struck me about Haslam is that he truly cares about his employees, even though Flying J is in the midst of a huge internal audit.

"It's like getting knocked down. You got to get back up and right yourself," Haslam said. "Our primary concern was first of all our people, reassuring them everything is OK. You could just imagine the rumors that could go around. Our second concern was our customers and making sure we take care of our customers."

Haslam also went out of his way to assure Browns fans the investigation will in no way distract the upcoming NFL draft.

"It's business as usual," explained Haslam. "We're great and we'll manage things down here. It's the first week we can really practice on the field, so let's really focus on that. We have the draft coming up, let's focus on that." 

Haslam is expected to be in town Thursday and Friday next week to participate in the NFL draft. He was seen at Browns mini-camp Thursday morning.

Haslam stressed he had no idea how long the investigation into Pilot Flying J rebates could take.

"We're prepared to have it take a long time, you've got to manage this, this is large business that we've got to run."

Haslam shook the hands of reporters after the news conference, asking some of them how they were doing while sipping on a can of Diet Coke. Haslam and I said a final goodbye as he left the conference room.

"It's good to see you. We'll be up there (Cleveland) later in the week," said Haslam. "It's been a pleasure to meet you."

I can't tell you where the FBI investigation is heading, only that the coming weeks and months will reveal its outcome. But based on how Haslam is handling it so far, I think it's safe to say the Browns appear to be in good hands.

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