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By Bruce Hooley | ESPNCleveland.com
Browns fans hopeful their beloved franchise would fade from use as a national punch line once a protracted coaching search ended, think again.
The plea deals of three Pilot-Flying J executives earlier this week increases the chances Browns owner Jimmy Haslam will someday face a federal indictment related to the IRS and FBI raid on his company’s headquarters last April.
Ten Pilot employees have now deemed it advantageous for them to accept a guilty plea in exchange for their testimony against the three highest-ranking executives still in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors.
Haslam is atop that food chain.
The Browns’ owner has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and his indictment would not mean anything other than he would have to prove that claim in court.
An indictment is not a conviction, but merely a formal charge that demonstrates prosecutorial confidence in obtaining a guilty verdict, either via a court proceeding or a plea.
It is a long shot to believe Haslam could escape this matter without being indicted, given the sheer number of Pilot employees now likely to tell the same story about the fuel rebate scheme that hatched the federal raid.
That likely means new Browns coach Mike Pettine will be directing the team amid an on-going legal soap opera involving the team’s owner.
Whether that will prove a bigger distraction for Pettine than it was for Pat Shurmur to pilot the Browns during the 2012 season, when Haslam’s impending purchase of the team became public during training camp, is a question that will likely play out before Browns fans this fall.
It’s been suggested by the most optimistic Browns backers that Haslam might emerge unscathed if it’s proven to federal satisfaction that he was an unwilling dupe of rogue employees.
That appears the best Haslam can hope for, but such a scenario won’t lessen the punch line factor for the franchise much at all.
Just imagine if the best comeback Browns fans have for taunting rivals is, “Hey, our owner is innocent because he was too dumb to know what his most trusted employees were doing.”
Even a Steeler fan would be bright enough to retort: “Are you talking about the Pilot scandal or every Browns draft since 1999?”
|Bruce Hooley hosts "Hooley & Jerod" from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”|
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