Assuming that Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is indicted eventually, I'm guessing that his minimum-security federal prison time not only will be a walk in the park (or a tennis game or two), but actually a lucrative vacation for a guy who clearly loves the bucks -- assuming that Jimmy takes over the prison gift shop. I'm here to tell you, the dude is a hell of a salesman, and not just because people are still paying to watch a team about whom NFL.com ran the headline "Stick a Fork in Cleveland Browns", after their sorrowful home loss to the Steelers.
No, it's because the first time I stopped by one of his 550 Pilot truck-stop travel centers, just off the Jutland, N.J., exit on I-78 about a month ago, my only intent was to see what sort of truck stop chain can earn a guy a billion dollars with which to buy an NFL franchise. I had no intention of opening my wallet. I just wanted to see what drew truckers to Pilots in such droves that it's the largest such chain in the land, earning him enough scratch to throw a billion dollars at a floundering NFL franchise last year.
Ten minutes later, down 50 bucks, I walked out with the latest issue of The New Pioneer, eager to read about the 10 most essential survivalist's tools (No. 1: anything with a very sharp cutting edge), plus another article on how to shoot squirrels from your canoe (sadly, no recipe included), and another about how to rid yourself of pesky rodents (a .357 magnum pistol, at a range of ... three yards). I also picked up Joni Mitchell's best-ever album, Blue, which I hadn't heard since high school (and which holds up brilliantly) and a hooded parka that looked like the heavy-duty canvas Carhartt that a Montana electrical lineman would wear in a blizzard -- though it turned out not to be canvas, and it was made in China, and it barely keeps the wind out.
Over my next two visits, I bought the latest issue of Tattoo ("The World's Largest Selling Tattoo Magazine"), sealed in plastic, which featured not only a 2014 Tattoo Girls calendar, but an engaging feature on the tattoos of the U.S. Winter Olympics athletes. (The hockey-playing Lamoureux sisters of North Dakota get the skin-art gold, although speed-skater J.R. Celski's mandala, celebrating his Polish-Filipino ancestry, is kind of amazing.) Also, a pair of polyester gloves -- made in China, insulated by 3M "Insulate" (but not very well, since my fingers freeze when I wear them) -- and a decade-old CD by former Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. I hit "eject" halfway through the fourth song -- Casady should have hung it up long ago -- but the CD could serve as an effective cutting edge if I snapped it in two.
This is what I didn't buy at Haslam's place: any of the licensed Duck Dynasty apparel; any of the 14 different car fresheners, ranging in scent from "Vanillarama" to "Leather;" any condoms called "Roughrider;" any "Horny Goat" or "Rockhard Weekend" supplements, designed to make your haul longer; or any vials of "Swarm," an "extreme energizer." On that first visit, though, I did check out the truck lot behind the building, where the semis fill up, and counted no fewer than 50 of them, some like gigantic Transformers sucking at diesel teats, most waiting for their turn, some just sitting there while their drivers took showers and washed their clothes in the stacked Speed Queen washer-dryers (made in America). The next time I visited, and the time after that, the sign out front said "Lot Full."
Why did I return two more times, with my on-site research already done? And why will I keep returning, on my weekly 200-mile commute to college from upstate New York to northeastern Pennsylvania? Because Jimmy's gas costs 40 cents a gallon less than where I used to fill up, 40 miles north, even though the two stations are in the same state -- a disparity I don't understand but certainly am not going to investigate too closely. Best to leave the hard questions to the FBI and the IRS, who maintain that the dude knows how to cop a profit a whole lot better than he knows how to run a football team.
Here's your timeline:
In July 2010, Pilot acquired the assets of another large company, Flying J, seeking to get out of bankruptcy, prompting complaints to the FTC from both competitors and then-Congressman Dennis Kucinich. The concern? The newly-combined Pilot Flying J was now a behemoth and would be able to put other smaller chains out of business, by offering rebates to companies buying their fuel. Rebates are routine in the business. Outrageous rebates that can put others out of business aren't.
Ten months later, on May 4, 2011, operating on a tip, the FBI quietly began investigating Pilot Flying J, using wiretaps, suspecting that Haslam's family business (of which he is the CEO) had been ripping off trucking companies -- for more than five years -- by offering enormous rebates that they never actually, fully rebated.
Eighteen months later, in October 2012, the NFL voted 32-0 to let Haslam buy 70 percent of the Browns from Randy Lerner, who would give up the other 30 in four years. And why shouldn't Haslam get a unanimous vote? What could be a problem? That charge by the state of Tennessee that Pilot price-gouged after Hurricane Ike? A speed bump. More to the point, Haslam already owned a minority piece of the Steelers; he was family. His brother was the governor of Tennessee. His company was now the sixth-largest privately held corporation in the U.S.
In April 2013, two years after the start of the investigation, the FBI and IRS filed a 120-page affidavit in federal court, written by "an FBI agent who specializes in public corruption and white-collar crime." The document said the agencies were investigating "conspiracy" and "wire fraud" and "mail fraud." It was convincing enough for a judge to allow the feds to raid four Pilot buildings in Knoxville.
This past August, at the Browns' training facility, Roger Goodell finally had no choice but to answer some Jimmy Haslam questions. By then, people were wondering whether, if Haslam went down, the NFL would allow him to keep the team. (Time out: In a league that flies F-14s over random games at a mill or so of taxpayer expense, and that stretches 12-acre American flags over the field lest anyone think they aren't down with the Patriot Act, you'd think that Goodell's intel would be good enough for some fed to have called 345 Park Avenue and whisper, Hey, guys, just so you know ... this Haslam guy ... you might want to, you know, hold off for a while.) But the league already maintained that they found out about the raid along with the rest of us, just as Haslam had denied knowing about Pilot's peculiar practices.
"We do the same vetting process," Goodell said. "Obviously, he knows people in the league after being an owner, so there were certain aspects of that which were easier. But we didn't short-circuit anything. ... This was a surprise to him and his senior-level management. From that standpoint, I don't think he was aware of it, and I don't know any way we could have been aware of it."
Goodell either hadn't read the affidavit, or simply believed Haslam's word over that of two of the most powerful federal investigative agencies in the government. Because the document contradicts Rog's interpretation, sort of emphatically. "The rebate fraud," it reads, "has occurred with the knowledge of Pilot's current President Mark Hazelwood and Pilot's Chief Executive Officer James A. 'Jimmy' Haslam III, due to the fact that the rebate fraud-related activities have been discussed during sales meetings in Knoxville, Tenn., in which Hazelwood and Haslam have been present."
To further emphasize Haslam's involvement, the affidavit also claims that prior to the raid, a company called Western Express discovered on their own that they were being ripped off, after which one Johnny Freeman, Pilot Flying J's VP for Sales, told an informant recording the conversation, "I called Jimmy and told him I got busted at Western Express."
"What did he say?" the informant asked.
"Oh, he knew it," Freeman responded.
"Oh, he did?"
"Absolutely. I mean, he knew it all along, that I was cost-plussin' this guy. Loved it. We were making $450,000 a month on him."
It couldn't get much more damning, could it? Of course it could. Pilot also allegedly was preying on some of the less business-savvy companies, according to a wiretap recording of one Brian Mosher, director of sales for national accounts: "Some of 'em, some of 'em don't know what a spreadsheet is, I'm not kiddin'."
Kind of makes you wonder who the less sophisticated might be, right? Maybe Kevin Hanscomb, director of sales for Pilot's east region, gives some insight, quoted in the affidavit as saying, in reference to Hispanic customers: "They're not stupid, there is a language barrier. So you can get away with a little bit more, because they know that they are not going to understand everything that you say."
Look, it's not as if we've ever expected the captains of industry to be saints. On top of which, it's hardly a surprise that, among the 32 CEOs in our most lucrative national industry south of Halliburton, every owner is going to adopt the St. Wellington code of ethics. Last year, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, his brother and his cousin were ordered by a New Jersey judge to pay $85 million to their apartment-complex investment partners, who had been defrauded by Wilf and his family over some deals back in the 80's. But whom were they ripping off? Other rich guys. Rich guys always rip off other rich guys.
This is different, because the feds say Haslam is ripping off average guys: the owners of small trucking firms. When you rip off the firms, whose paychecks get cut? The drivers, average guys who don't lead nearly as adventurous of a carefree-loner life as Lowell George of Little Feat would have had you believe. (Although, admittedly, "If you give me weed, whites and wine, and you show me a sign, I'll be willin' to be movin'," still beats the hell out of Merle Haggard.) So who gets ripped off next? Hopefully not Browns' season-ticket holders; they've suffered enough.
Jimmy's got some bills. A class-action settlement brought by hundreds of trucking firms, approved by a federal judge, is going to cost Haslam's firm $85 million -- including nearly $14 million in legal fees (which he's paying back in full -- with six percent interest!). That doesn't even include the costs around the corner: more than 50 companies who have already filed or will file their own suits. They expect to get a lot more, and why not? Seven Pilot employees have pled guilty already.
Me, I'm going to stock up on Tom T. Hall CDs, Keebler's cheese-cheddar crackers (including my favorite snack additive of all time, "Yellow #6") and bilingual trucker-mileage record books -- just in case a cash-strapped Haslam decides to jack the prices at the Jutland Pilot store.
As for Haslam's run at a prison concession franchise? Well, we know there's a federal grand jury investigation, and we know that grand juries generally indict 90 percent of the time. Is it possible for Haslam to avoid that, based on the claim that both the FBI and IRS are lying in their affidavit -- that Haslam was never in the room when the rebates were discussed, and that our man Johnny Freeman was making up their conversation? I haven't a clue.
I do know that when Haslam's acquisition of the Browns was approved, Falcons owner Arthur Blank was asked what he'd advise the new guy. His answer? "The same principles you bring in business apply in the NFL." Sort of prophetic, when you think about it.