KODAK, Tenn. - Cleveland Browns owner and Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam are selling the Tennessee Smokies minor league baseball team.
Pilot Flying J is under a federal investigation into alleged rebate fraud. Lauren Christ, a spokeswoman for the company, said the sale of the Smokies wouldn't affect Haslam's ownership of the Browns and was unrelated to the investigation.
Randy Boyd, the CEO of Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corporation and a top education adviser to Gov. Haslam, is buying the Chicago Cubs' Class AA Southern League affiliate, the team announced Friday.
"It does have something to do with Cleveland in that we're obviously going to be spending more time there," Jimmy Haslam told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, which first reported the sale. "But I think the reality is the entire partnership group had owned the team for 12 years and felt like it was time for new ownership."
Boyd said the deal awaits only a formal letter of approval from Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig's office. Terms of the sale weren't announced.
The Haslams had served as principal owners of the Smokies. One of the ownership partners had been Gary Wade, chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Haslams will retain a security interest in the team, but Wade will no longer be a partner under the new deal.
A team release said the sale had been discussed since January and that an agreement was reached in March, well before FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided the Pilot Flying J headquarters on April 15. At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Boyd said he reached a deal to buy the team just a couple of days after Haslam contacted him in January about the possibility of buying the team.
"My partners and I have been honored to own the Smokies for the past 10 years and didn't want to let the opportunity to sell to a local owner pass by," Jimmy Haslam said in the release. "Randy is a great community leader, a quality person and a first-class businessman. I know he will be an excellent owner."
Five members of the Pilot sales team have pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges and are cooperating with prosecutors. Jimmy Haslam has said he was unaware of an alleged conspiracy to defraud trucking company customers until he read the FBI affidavit outlining the allegations.
Boyd said he first discussed the possibility of buying the Smokies more than five years ago to Jim Haslam, the father of Jimmy Haslam and Gov. Haslam.
"I let him know I'd like to buy the team and he explained what a great business this was and that he would never sell it," Boyd said. "So I really didn't think this would ever happen until I guess in early January, I'm driving down the road and I get a call from Jimmy, and Jimmy's very quick and direct. He says, 'Hey, do you want to buy the Smokies?' I weaved around on the road a bit and said, 'Absolutely.'"
Boyd said an announcement wasn't made until now because lawyers needed to iron out the details and the sale had to receive approval from the Southern League.