NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — With a year-long federal fraud investigation looming over it, the huge truck-stop chain owned by the family of the Cleveland Browns owner and Tennessee's governor is doing some housecleaning at its highest levels.
Several top executives at Pilot Flying J, including the president, abruptly left this week, more than a year after FBI agents raided the Knoxville, Tennessee, headquarters of the nation's largest diesel retailer. Ten former employees have previously pleaded guilty to helping cheat trucking companies out of promised rebates and discounts.
Those cases and this week's departures, observers note, could indicate that prosecutors are entering the final phase of a methodical probe that has included records suggesting Pilot CEO and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam knew of the scheme, something he denies. One expert said Haslam might be cutting ties with his senior staff in a bid to persuade prosecutors not to charge the company his father founded decades ago, one in which his brother, Gov. Bill Haslam, still holds an undisclosed stake.
Pilot President Mark Hazelwood and Scott "Scooter" Wombold, vice president of national accounts, left the company Monday, with Haslam sending a company-wide email thanking Hazelwood for his service but saying nothing about why or how he was leaving. Tuesday saw the departure of five more members of the sales team.
Dennis B. Francis, a Knoxville attorney who has worked in federal criminal defense for 40 years, said the only way this week's departures make sense to him is if some of the people leaving are cooperating with prosecutors.
For a defendant to get a lighter sentence than federal guidelines mandate, prosecutors have to file court papers saying that person provided substantial assistance to the government. Once prosecutors have the evidence they need to convict, they no longer offer any promises of special consideration.
"They call it 'getting on the bus,'" said Francis, who is not involved in the Pilot case. "And there's only so much room on the bus."
Wombold's attorney, John E. Kelly, said in an email that his client had been "helping the company repair many customer relationships during the past 14 months. Mr. Wombold's departure from the company is not connected to past guilty pleas entered into by former employees, and any inference that there is a connection is not accurate."
Hazelwood's attorney declined to comment.