Shock and Awe: Knoxville Hasn't Been This Shocked Since the Butcher Banks Closed

When word hit news websites last week that the FBI had staged a shock-and-awe raid of the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, there was a common theme expressed in my round-robin of phone calls. Nothing this shocking has happened in Knoxville since the Feds raided and closed the Butcher banks in 1983.

No one is comparing the Haslam family to the illegalities perpetrated by Jake and C.H. Jr.; the similarity has to do with the size of the company, its prominence in the city and state economy, and the very public lives of the owners.

After all, Jake just ran for governor. Bill Haslam got elected.

I know hardly anyone who would have believed that the Haslams would do anything illegal. First, it has never been their reputation. There is also the near universal opinion that they aren’t stupid. You don’t risk a company that makes $1 million a day by shorting some trucking company on rebates, do you?

But hanging over the situation is the shock that the FBI and the IRS would take the very public and drastic step of conducting a raid on a company owned by the governor of the state and his high-profile family. Not to mention an NFL owner. Isn’t this the sort of thing that results in lawsuits and endless depositions?

Would the Feds dare to take this action without having a strong belief in the truth of the charges?

I worked in a succession of towns in the Tennessee Valley before coming to the News Sentinel in 1982. In every town there is a “guy.” There is a guy who leads the business community, spearheads the charities, and nothing happens unless it shows up on the guy’s calendar. Too often in small towns, the guy uses his position and power to benefit himself and his friends.

The guy leading Knoxville for decades has been Big Jim Haslam. Haslam has done well by doing good and by being a leader. His political contributions and his position have certainly contributed to his business success. But there has not been any suggestion that he has been involved in any shady deals.

One can only imagine the anguish he is feeling these days at the accusations being leveled by current and former employees and the government at his company and his CEO son Jimmy.

One of the dismaying things to read in the FBI search warrant request is the transcripts of profanity-laced meetings and prevalence of F-bombs. It sounds like locker-room talk, not a sales meeting. A wise woman of my acquaintance said she would not be surprised if the sources of the accusations turned out to be women. Women fed up with the macho, testosterone-heavy atmosphere reflected in the transcripts.

One suspects that this investigation will continue for some time. The political implications for Gov. Bill Haslam’s future are hard to predict, but it is not a good thing to have a company in which you are a part-owner under investigation.

As usual, the Haslams have not stone-walled the public and the media. CEO Jimmy Haslam has conducted press conferences. The FBI’s willingness to release the search-warrant details may have been prompted by Haslam’s high-profile defense. The feds usually find targets of their investigations “lawyered up” and silent. But the Haslams are public people and it would be totally uncharacteristic of them not to take to the public square to defend their company. Jimmy Haslam’s ownership of the Cleveland Browns ensures that national media will be covering the story.

But the family and the company’s reputation suffered a body blow in one afternoon last week, obviously because someone did something stupid.

The crux of the case seems to be who. And was his name Haslam?

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