WESTLAKE — Jimmy Haslam shook hands, shared laughs and talked some football with his newest customers.
After some troubling weeks, the Browns owner finally got a chance to tell Cleveland fans he was sorry that he had let them down.
Embarrassed by a federal investigation of fraud inside his truck-stop company, Haslam apologized Tuesday night to Browns fans for being a distraction and promised to bring Cleveland a winning team.
Haslam, who bought the Browns last year from Randy Lerner, was the featured speaker at the Northeastern Ohio Chapter of the National Football Foundation’s 25th annual scholar-athlete banquet. It was one of Haslam’s first public appearances in Ohio since the FBI raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, his family’s business, last month as part of an investigation into an alleged fraud scheme.
From a dais that included Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, Haslam spoke to a packed banquet room and then held a brief news conference afterward when he offered his regrets about his recent legal troubles.
“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, and so I apologize for that,” Haslam said.
“We feel badly about it and we’re very comfortable we’ll work through this situation.”
Following the speech, Haslam did not answer any questions during a 10-minute meeting with local media members. He was pressed about his knowledge of the purported fraud at Pilot Flying J, a company founded by his father 54 years ago, but politely declined to answer.
Haslam spoke with a few Browns employees, exited the building through a rear entrance, climbed into a waiting SUV and left the banquet facility more than an hour before the event concluded.
It has been a trying few weeks for Haslam.
Federal agents raided Pilot’s headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., on April 15. A few days later, the FBI released a 120-page affidavit that alleged members of Pilot’s sales team deliberately withheld rebates to boost profits.
Haslam said he was unaware that any of his employees were scheming customers and was deeply troubled by the assertions, calling them “sickening.”
Haslam reviewed the steps he has taken while the probe continues and reiterated he’s doing all he can to gain back the trust of Pilot Flying J’s customers. He said he has personally spoken to “between 250 and 300” trucking companies and that some customers have been paid money they were owed.
“The important thing is to get it right,” Haslam said. “I’d like to get it wrapped up by the end of the month, but if it takes until early June, early July, we’re going to get the numbers right and if we owe X, Y, Z trucking company, we’ll write them a check on the spot. “
An NFL spokesman said the league has no plans to ask Haslam to relinquish control of the team during the investigation.
During his remarks to open the banquet’s program, Haslam praised the Browns’ new coaching staff headed by Rob Chudzinki and raved about the team’s recent picks in the NFL Draft. Haslam was at the team’s facility during the draft and was pleased to see how well his new front office of CEO Joe Banner, general manager Michael Lombardi, assistant GM Ray Farmer and Chudzinski interacted.
“I know there have been some comments that maybe it’s not great teamwork but I’ve never seen four people work together in a positive manner better than those guys did,” he said. “It was great to see it. And it wasn’t all agreement. There was a lot of disagreement, a lot of conversation going back and forth.”
Haslam told the audience he was excited about the upcoming season, and vowed to turn the Browns into contenders.
“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.”
Later, Haslam wouldn’t make any predictions for 2013, but expects the Browns to make significant progress.
“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.”
Haslam plans to return to Cleveland later this week, when the team will hold a minicamp for rookies and undrafted free agents.
Before leaving the dais, Haslam offered some advice to some of the young football players being honored.
“Most of the lessons that I’ve learned in life, candidly, came through athletics and I think particularly football,” he said. “The great thing about football is it’s the ultimate team sport. No matter what position you play, if you don’t do your job, you’re going to let the team down. Candidly, that’s the way life is, that’s what business that we play in, and you’ve got to count on everybody on your team.”