Browns owner Haslam apologizes to fans

By TOM WITHERS - AP Sports Writer
    2013-05-07 20:05

WESTLAKE, Ohio (AP) - Embarrassed by a federal investigation of fraud inside his truck-stop company, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam apologized to Cleveland fans and promised to bring the city a winning team.

Haslam, who bought the Browns last year from Randy Lerner, was the featured speaker Monday night 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.

``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,'' he said.

``We feel badly about it and we're very comfortable we'll work through this situation.''

Haslam did not answer any questions during his 10-minute meeting with local media members. He was pressed about his knowledge of the fraud, but politely declined to answer.

Federal agents raided Pilot's headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., on April 15. The FBI alleges members of Pilot's sales team deliberately withheld rebates to boost profits.

Haslam reviewed the steps he has taking 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.

Haslam praised the Browns recent NFL draft and said he's excited about the upcoming season. He plans to return to Cleveland later this week, when the team will hold a minicamp for rookies and undrafted free agents.