NASHVILLE - A Knoxville judge on Monday rejected a claim that Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam is tampering with potential witnesses in a lawsuit stemming from an FBI raid on the country's largest diesel retailer.
Knoxville Circuit Judge Harold Wimberly denied a motion by Atlantic Coast Carriers Inc. of Hazlehurst, Ga., to block Haslam, who also owns the NFL's Cleveland Browns, from contacting customers who the FBI alleges were short-changed on their fuel rebates by Pilot.
The FBI alleges members of Pilot's sales team deliberately withheld rebates to boost Pilot profits and pad sales commissions. No criminal charges have been filed.
Pilot spokesman Tom Ingram said the privately owned company is delighted by the ruling.
"There was absolutely no proof of any wrongdoing by Pllot Flying J or its CEO Jimmy Haslam," Ingram said in a phone interview. "It was outrageous to suggest that a company cannot talk to its customers.
"It's equally outrageous to suggest that a CEO upon hearing that there may have been underpayments of rebates to his diesel fuel customers cannot reach out to those customers and say that if there's been any underpayments let's figure it out and let's correct it."
Haslam announced last week that he had spoken with managers of several trucking companies and planned to personally meet with them to address issues raised in secretly recorded conversations among Pilot's sales staff. Atlantic Coast Carriers attorneys Mark Tate said they feared those calls and visits were designed to keep potential plaintiffs from joining the lawsuit.
Tate stressed that while his side lost the motion, Pilot and Haslam acknowledged that arrangements with customers do not release the company from liability.
Ingram said there was never any dispute about that question.
"That's what we said from the very beginning," Ingram said. "They're desperate for a point if that's one they claim, because we've said that from the very beginning, repeatedly and consistently."
Tate said the lawsuit will proceed independently from any criminal charges that might be filed following the FBI raid. Next steps include subpoenaing executives -- including Haslam -- and records, he said.
"These cases are not going away," Tate said. "We look forward to continuing to add new named plaintiffs and holding Haslam and his company full accountable to those he and they harmed."
Meanwhile, major Pilot shareholder CVC Capital Partners has issued a statement expressing confidence in Haslam's leadership at the company and in the steps he has taken since the raid to examine any potential wrongdoing.
"CVC fully supports these steps, and will remain engaged with and supportive of the company, consistent with our role as an investor," the statement says. "CVC has been an investor for a number of years and Pilot and the Haslam family have demonstrated integrity and strong character in our dealings with the company."
Luxembourg-based CVC purchased a 47.5 percent share in Pilot in 2008, two years before the takeover of rival Flying J. CVC's stake is now down to less than 20 percent.