KNOXVILLE - Hang up and pay up.
That's the message a Georgia trucking company sent Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam on Wednesday when its lawyer accused Haslam of witness tampering and cheating customers for a second time as the fallout from a federal fuel-rebate fraud probe continues.
Pilot's lawyer called the accusations "outrageous."
Haslam said that this week he's calling and meeting with trucking customers who might have been shorted on fuel rebates and discounts and repaying them what they're owed. Mark Tate, the lawyer for Atlantic Coast Carriers of Hazlehurst, Ga., says that's too little, too late.
The company filed a lawsuit against Pilot in Knox County Circuit Court last week seeking class-action status and accusing the company of racketeering violations.
"He owes them more than he took from them," Tate said. "We don't think it's appropriate for Jimmy Haslam and his PR machine to go around glad-handing the people who they were backhanding before. We don't think it's right for him to come in and try to make it all just go away."
Tate said Pilot owes the company interest on the lost money, along with damages as punishment. He said he'll file a motion this week asking a judge to stop Haslam from meeting with the companies. The motion hadn't been filed Wednesday afternoon.
Pilot's lawyer, Aubrey Harwell Sr., said that what Haslam's doing deserves praise instead of scorn.
"I fail to understand how anybody can call anything like that inappropriate," Harwell said. "It's absolutely outrageous. It's ludicrous. It's completely contrary to the truth of the matter. Jimmy Haslam has contacted customers and told them the company may have made a mistake and that if he has made a mistake, he will make it right. If money's owed, it will be paid. Fair is fair, but overreaching is not fair."
Defense lawyers typically advise defendants against having any contact with victims during a criminal case. The nature of the Pilot case makes for a gray area, one expert said.
"This doesn't come up very often," said Darryl Brown, a professor at the University of Virginia College of Law. "A defendant typically doesn't know this far in advance about a criminal investigation."
Tate, the Georgia lawyer, said he doesn't know yet how much money Atlantic Coast believes it lost. He said he expects other Pilot customers to sign onto the lawsuit soon, maybe in a matter of days.
"We have a number of clients to be reviewed and vetted," Tate said. "There were 3,300 customers, so you're talking about a lot of pissed-off people."
FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Pilot headquarters in West Knoxville last week as part of a probe into claims of rebate fraud. Court records indicate agents continue to sort through a mountain of digital and paper evidence. A new inventory filed Wednesday listed a series of electronic databases, including the one used to store rebates.
Haslam, who owns the Cleveland Browns, met Wednesday with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the status of the investigation.
Federal authorities have filed no charges so far.