by Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY Sports
If the allegations about new Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III in a 120-page FBI affidavit are true, the NFL recently aligned itself with one questionable business partner.
Haslam, CEO of Pilot Flying J, the nation's largest chain of truck stops and travel centers, purchased the Browns for $1 billion and was unanimously approved by NFL owners in October.
You know, after a typically thorough NFL vetting process.
Long-suffering fans in the Dawg Pound rejoiced. Haslam brought the passion and energy that former owner Randy Lerner never displayed.
He's also bringing baggage.
An investigation by the FBI and IRS into fraud, conspiracy and other misdeeds contends Haslam knew all about a systematic scheme that claimed millions of dollars from large-volume commercial customers who purchased fuel using discounts for bulk sales and was carried out by executives and key members of the sales staff, according to a federal affidavit unsealed on Thursday.
No charges have been filed, and Haslam -- expected to be at Browns headquarters in Berea, Ohio, during next week's NFL draft -- has proclaimed his innocence and launched his own internal investigation into Pilot Flying J's practices.
Still, federal raids this week on the Knoxville-based headquarters of the newest NFL owner threaten another black eye to the image of the nation's most popular sports league.
"The league is very, very concerned," a person with key business dealings with the NFL and multiple owners told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
You'd think the NFL might have gained a whiff that this was coming while vetting the billionaire who heads one of the nation's largest family-owned businesses. The feds launched their investigation in May 2011.
"The NFL was completely blind-sided by this," the business associate said. "The NFL found out when the records were seized. That's not a good time to find out."
Publicly, the NFL has had little comment about the controversy.
In an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports, league spokesman Greg Aiello indicated there were no plans to ask Haslam to step aside during the investigation.
Yet clearly, a league that uses instant replay to correct on-the-field mistakes by officials could be forced into a new round of "vetting" for Haslam, who previously owned a minority share of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Haslam's name doesn't appear in the affidavit until Page 10, as an FBI agent who specializes in white-collar crime contends that Haslam was present at sales meetings when the fraud-related scheme -- targeting clients with trucking companies deemed to be too unsophisticated to catch on that they were being duped -- was discussed. Haslam also was mentioned elsewhere in the affidavit as having knowledge of illegal schemes, for which federal agents have recorded conversations as part of the evidence.
Internally, when considering the NFL's vetting of Haslam, one question going forward will be whether there was any way the league could have verified information that his company was the subject of a secret federal probe.
"But the NFL should have known about it," the business associate said. "That's why they get paid the big bucks."
If Haslam is found to be directly involved in the fraudulent activities, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and league owners -- Jerry Jones, Bob Kraft, Bob McNair and John Mara among them -- will have little choice but to harshly disassociate themselves from the new Browns owner. Or come off as though they tacitly approve of institutionalized fraud.
Over the years, NFL owners have been sued repeatedly amid business disputes, messy family estate squabbles and differences with the IRS. Such cases are rarely more than a blip on the radar screen of the NFL business.
But the case against Haslam, if proven true -- and considering what the affidavit says, the feds better be able to prove it -- would cross a moral line that could threaten the league's integrity.
The relevant precedent may be former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who was suspended for a year and fined $1 million by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue after DeBartolo failed to report an alleged extortion plot as he attempted to strike a deal for a casino in Louisiana.
DeBartolo eventually gave up control of the franchise to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.
If that was the fallout for DeBartolo, imagine how the league would be pressured to wash its hands of Haslam? Unlike DeBartolo's long history in the league, Haslam is a neophyte owner who hasn't had time to build up significant goodwill among owners for contributions to the league.
His very ownership of the Browns potentially could be at stake.
Remember, Goodell was aggressive in going after the New Orleans Saints players in the Bountygate scandal -- although it was undone by sloppy evidence -- in the name of principles that support the game's integrity.
No doubt, Goodell had the right intentions in vigorously dismantling that pay-for-play program, even though the NFL's investigation tactics, the rush to punish and level of discipline were questionable.
Would Goodell be as forceful in dealing with an owner?
That, too, might soon become a very relevant question ... pending further fed review.
And just when it seemed that the Browns were gaining some momentum with the new regime, another dark cloud hovers above the most cursed franchise in the NFL.
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