Haslam's troubles can't be brushed off
About midafternoon, I had a conversation with a former federal investigator.
In his career that spanned more than two decades, he was involved in some high-profile cases that could officially be called “doozies.”
He went through the process of tracking money, checking Swiss bank accounts and obtaining and executing search warrants.
He had no inside or outside knowledge of the specifics as to why the FBI and IRS had searched Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s company, Pilot Flying J, on Monday in Knoxville, Tenn. And as he spoke, the affadavit that accuses Haslam of extensive and long-term fraud had yet to be released.
But this former agent had heard Haslam’s news conference earlier in the week, when Haslam said he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong and the investigation was related to small rebates.
“It had me laughing,” the former investigator said.
A few hours later, the anvil fell, when the feds, perhaps chuckling at Haslam’s claims, decided to unseal the affidavit that alleges Haslam and his company engaged in fraud for quite a few years.
Basically, the feds claim a guy making millions was knowingly cheating the little guy out of money because the little guy didn’t know enough to stop it.
At this point, all the usual caveats apply. Innocent until proven guilty. Nothing proven. No crime yet. Nobody charged. But let’s also not forget that more than 40 FBI agents as well as numerous IRS investigators descended on Pilot Flying J headquarters early this week.
That doesn’t happen on a lark.
Federal investigators are methodical, meticulous and thorough. They pound the rock slowly and steadily.
If they get four search warrants for a business, they have presented solid evidence to obtain the warrants.
The former investigator may not know the details of Haslam's case, but he knows intimately how federal investigators work.
“From my experience,” the former investigator said, “by the time an investigation gets to the point of a search warrant, you pretty much have someone by the (testicles). Anything you find while executing the warrant is frosting on the cake.”
He even painted a picture of what he expected to happen.
He said -- before the affidavit was released -- that typically in a case like this, the company finds a lower-level employee to scapegoat.
Said employee would receive the blame, the investigator said.
But he added that the FBI and IRS are used to this, so he was fairly sure the feds had an unnamed informant within the company pointing out those involved.
Lo and behold, the affidavit named a company employee who pointed out the fraud, and said Haslam was present at meetings when it was discussed.
This is not a small potatoes thing. Fraud is a very serious legal, ethical and moral charge.
The feds say the investigation began in 2011, and allege the fraud scheme was in place for five-to-seven years.
Haslam released a statement that started with this: “I now understand more clearly the questions the federal investigators are exploring.”
He didn’t know before Thursday?
The statement continued: “I maintain that the foundation of this company is built on its integrity and that any willful wrongdoing by any employee of this company at any time is intolerable. We will continue to cooperate with the federal investigation and continue our own investigation in these allegations. I value the relationships we have with our customers, our vendors and our team members across this country and regret that they have to go through this with us, but I trust and believe their faith in this company and its principles has never been misplaced.”
This reads as a very well-crafted non-denial denial.
And in fact it hints at the very strategy the former investigator detailed before the affidavit was released: Blame an underling.
Nobody knows what will happen with this case, where it goes or how it turns. Nobody has been charged with a crime, but several members of the Pilot Flying J sales staff have been served subpoenas.
But it all seems so shameful, and it sure seems to bring a ton of shame to Cleveland and the Browns.
It also raises questions. A lot of questions.
Many of them are troubling.
Was the NFL aware of this investigation when it put together the Haslam-Joe Banner team to buy the Browns?
How could Haslam portray himself as Cleveland’s white knight riding in to save the day knowing the feds were sniffing at his door?
What does this do to Haslam’s credibility within the league?
What happens to the team if Haslam is indicted? Does the league take over?
Was this investigation the reason Haslam decided to return as CEO of Pilot Flying J?
And … finally … why does this stuff seem to happen so often in Cleveland?