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What a Browns PR disaster means on the eve of the NFL draft
Terry Pluto says the Browns can still have a successful draft as owner Jimmy Haslam's legal troubles worsen
by WKSU's AMANDA RABINOWITZ


Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
 
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam says he’s not stepping down any time soon, because he did nothing wrong as CEO of Pilot Flying J truck stops.
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This week begins the NFL draft, and it’s the equivalent of the Super Bowl for battered Browns fans. But this week, fans are expressing more frustration than anticipation. That’s because owner Jimmy Haslam is grabbing all the headlines about the ongoing FBI investigation into his Pilot Flying J truck stop business.

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto talks to Amanda Rabinowitz about what new information in the case means for the team and fans on the eve of the NFL draft.

Listen: Terry Pluto commentary on Haslam and NFL draft fallout

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Listen: Terry Pluto's NFL draft confessional

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Taped phone conversations 
The Plain Dealer has reviewed a 120-page FBI affidavit that says Haslam's company, Pilot Flying J, engaged "for many years" in a fraud scheme to keep millions of dollars owed to customers as fuel rebates. 

"The problem if you’re Jimmy Haslam, they have taped conversations in there about how they could rip off customers and how they treated the unsophisticated ones who don’t know how to read spreadsheets or others whose English isn’t so good. It’s appalling when you read through that, and it’s a huge problem for a man who owns two companies that are in the customer service business: The Browns and truck stops," says Terry Pluto

Lawsuits and a trust issue
Atlantic Coast Carriers, a small trucking company in Hazlehurst, Ga., has filed a lawsuit, saying that Pilot Flying J “has benefited from inaccurate rebate procedures for certain clients, including Atlantic Coast and several other clients.’’ Terry Pluto says more lawsuits are likely to follow. And he says he's received emails from fans who are now saying, "Can I trust this guy?”

Pluto says fans would likely be more forgiving if Haslam struggled with a personal problem, like drinking. “People would understand that a lot easier than this idea that there’s something fraudulent … about how they do business.” And, Pluto says what makes it worse is that "Haslam's stance is, I just didn’t know about it. That's not good."

Potential draft implications 
All of this bad publicity comes at a very bad time for the team: on the eve of the NFL draft. But, Pluto thinks the team can still draft well. Joe Banner is the team CEO, Mike Lombardi is the GM and Rob Chudzinski is the head coach. "These guys have been buried in film and interviewing players. And, in fact, Joe Banner ran the Philadelphia Eagles for 12 years. He knows how to run a franchise. He could, in effect, be de facto owner and top administrator.”

“But the Browns needed a good buzz." And, Pluto says some of Haslam's early decisions have not done that, including hiring relatively unknown head coach Rob Chudzinski.

“But it’s possible 'Coach Chud,' Lombardi and Banner could have a good draft. Or not.”

And if they don’t, the Pilot J. PR fiasco will only make it worse. “He has huge PR problems,” Pluto says. 

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