Jimmy Haslam, whose Pilot Flying J company is under a federal investigation into alleged rebate fraud and reportedly has $4 billion in debt, told ESPN Cleveland he will not be selling the Cleveland Browns.
"Absolutely not. We plan on owning the Browns for a long time," he told ESPN Cleveland in a telephone interview.
Haslam has been doing furious damage control since the April 15 raid on company headquarters and the subsequent release of an FBI affidavit with transcripts of secretly recorded conversations among the sales staff. Federal agents say the conversations outline a scheme to defraud trucking companies of fuel rebates.
Five members of the sales staff have pleaded guilty to mail fraud and are cooperating with prosecutors, as are two further current and former Pilot staffers.
A source told ESPN Cleveland that the Browns have a "plan in place" to maintain Haslam's ownership of the team if he is indicted in the FBI's investigation. When asked about this, Haslam said, "I don't want to answer any legal questions."
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Pilot Flying J has $4 billion in debt, which prompted speculation that Haslam would look to sell the Browns. He refused to comment on the newspaper's story when asked about it by ESPN Cleveland but instead emphasized how much money he has invested into the Browns, including $5 million to remodel the team's facilities and a planned $100 million investment to remodel the team's stadium.
"Since October, we put together a completely new front office, hired a new head coach with two really good coordinators, sold naming rights to the stadium, and went through free agency and the draft," Haslam told ESPN Cleveland.
Haslam and his brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, announced last week that they are selling their minor league baseball team, the Tennessee Smokies. Randy Boyd, the CEO of Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corporation and a top education adviser to Gov. Haslam, is buying the Chicago Cubs' Double-A Southern League affiliate.
"It does have something to do with Cleveland in that we're obviously going to be spending more time there," Jimmy Haslam told the Knoxville News-Sentinel last week. "But I think the reality is the entire partnership group had owned the team for 12 years and felt like it was time for new ownership."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.