NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam on Monday acknowledged a massive hit to the credibility of the family-owned Pilot Flying J truck stop chain following FBI allegations of the widespread fraud of customers at the country's largest diesel retailer.
Haslam announced at the company's Knoxville headquarters that he has suspended several members of the sales team after an affidavit filed in federal court disclosed secretly recorded conversations in which Pilot staff boasted about taking advantage of less-sophisticated trucking company customers.
"I, more than anybody, understand the damage that's been done to our reputation, our brand and our relationships in the trucking community," Haslam said. "Eight days ago I think we had the best relationships, the best trust in the trucking industry. And we now have the worst. I understand that, I accept responsibility for it."
Locally, Pilot Flying J has operations in Davenport, Walcott and Woodhull. The privately held company posted $29 billion in revenues in 2012. Haslam, who bought the Browns last year, is the brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who also maintains an undisclosed stake in the company founded by their father with a single gas station in 1958.
Jimmy Haslam has denied wrongdoing and dismissed suggestions he step aside from running the company or the Browns while the investigation is underway. He previously described the investigation as focusing on just a small portion of the company's business.
The recordings made for the FBI investigation show that leaders of the Pilot sales team derided some clients as unsophisticated, lazy and undeserving of rebates they had negotiated when signing a deal to buy fuel from Pilot. The affidavit indicates millions of dollars were unfairly withheld.
FBI Special Agent Robert H. Root wrote in an affidavit that the practice was known by a variety of euphemisms including "jacking the discount," ''manual rebates," and "screwing" the customer.
Haslam said while the company isn't judging the guilt or innocence of the employees placed on leave, "We cannot ignore the content of the federal affidavit released last Thursday evening."
Haslam said internal auditors are converging at company headquarters to review all 3,300 contracts with trucking customers and to "proactively address any miscalculations." He said he also planned to travel to meet with officials at trucking companies who were specifically mentioned in the FBI transcripts.
Other changes include creating the position of chief compliance officer and convert all payments to electronic billing.
"I don't want to hear the term 'manual transaction' again at Pilot Flying J after June 30," he said.
The company also plans to hire an independent special investigator to examine allegations of abuse and handle all inquiries related to the federal investigation.
Haslam called a decision to have the investigator report directly to the company's board of directors "an outstanding idea" that should inspire confidence in how serious the allegations are being treated.
A company spokeswoman said the Pilot Flying J does not disclose the names of its board of directors.
Haslam said the company faces a tough path toward rebuilding its relationships with customers.
"I understand we have a long way to go — we're approaching it very humbly, hat in hand," he said. "And we'll do what we can over a period of time to regain the trust of the trucking companies."
Haslam told reporters he didn't closely read the 120-page affidavit until Friday evening, after he had read a statement in which he said he wouldn't step aside because he had done nothing wrong.
He said he has since spoken with at least one executive of a trucking company that the affidavit says was cheated in the scheme and attempted to speaking with another one.
Meanwhile, trucking company Atlantic Coast Carriers Inc. of Hazlehurst, Ga., has filed a lawsuit against Pilot in Knoxville circuit court over the rebate allegations, and is seeking class-action status in the case.
Today is Sunday, Dec. 8, the 342nd day of 2013. There are 23 days left in the year. 1863 -- 150 years ago: For the whole of last week we have been favored with the most delightful Indian summer weather, and mercury ranging from 40 to 65 above zero. The river is entirely clear of ice and looks as mild and soft as summer. 1888 -- 125 years ago: Albert Johnson was appointed a deputy in the circuit clerk's office. 1913 -- 100 years ago: 800 or more tons of earth in six landslides covered 38th Street for a distance of 200 feet near 7th Avenue and destroyed much property. 1938 -- 75 years ago: One of the 350-foot towers, which with a new transmitter will increase the power of WHBF to 1,000 watts day and night, has been completed on a 20-acre tract at 23rd Avenue and 51st Street, Moline. 1963 -- 50 years ago: In cooperation with The Associated Press, The Argus presents to its readers a complete, beginning-to-end account of one of the most tragic and dreadful chapters in American history, the assassination of President Kennedy, available in book form, and now in preparation. The book is entitled "The Torch is Passed." 1988 -- 25 years ago: Deere & Co. stockholders received good news of a boost in their quarterly dividends from 20 to 30 cents per share of common stock. The dividend, made to stockholders of record on Dec. 30, will be payable on Feb. 1, 1989.