Dozens of FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents on Monday raided the West Knoxville headquarters of Pilot Flying J, operator of the largest travel center network in North America, while executing a search warrant.
FBI supervisory special agent Marshall Stone said federal agents arrived at the corporate headquarters on Lonas Road as part of a "ongoing investigation."
Stone declined to provide specifics of the raid.
"We will cooperate appropriately with any and all external investigations and conduct our own. I believe and trust there has been no wrongdoing. The integrity of our company always has been job No. 1."
Pilot Food Marts, Pilot Travel Centers and Flying J Travel Plazas remain open, according to a statement from Pilot spokeswoman Lauren Christ of Moxley Carmichael public relations firm.
"At this time, we do not know the nature of the situation," according to the statement. "Pilot Flying J is cooperating fully with the authorities.
"Pilot Flying J is confident that the matter will be resolved fully."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who is the younger brother of Jimmy Haslam, declined to comment, referring questions to Moxley Carmichael.
An employee who was present during the raid described an orderly but swift effort by federal agents to verify staffers' identities and job titles and to separate those who are necessary to the day-to-day business operations.
"They came in pretty quick — it wasn't a calm event," said the employee, who asked to not be identified. "I was at my desk and I heard some voices say they were there to execute a search and seizure warrant."
Company personnel were told to turn off their computers, cellphones and other electronic devices immediately as agents sequestered and processed some 200 employees among three office buildings on the corporate campus.
"They didn't want us to have any access to company information," the employee said.
The employee initially was corralled into a room with his department co-workers. The staffer and most of the others were told later to leave their company laptops behind and were subsequently allowed to leave the premises.
"Certain people in certain departments were asked to stay," the employee said. "Mostly people who collect data."
The staffer said he saw 25 to 30 federal agents and Knoxville Police Department officers in his building alone.
"There were just so many of them," said the employee, adding that several of the FBI agents wore white bulletproof vests. "It was weird, they looked like life preservers."
Agents appeared particularly focused on IT, accounting and customer services offices, he added.
"They didn't seem like they were on a witch hunt," the staffer said. "They seemed like they knew what they were looking for."
Employees are expected to return to work at the corporate offices as usual Tuesday morning, according to a statement released Monday night by Moxley Carmichael.
"The message they will receive from CEO Jimmy Haslam will be, ‘Stay focused and do your job' supporting the company's 650 travel centers," the statement reads.
Two men were seen exiting the Pilot data center, 1339 E. Weisgarber Road, Monday afternoon. One was wearing an FBI windbreaker and the other was carrying a backpack.
The Knoxville Police Department provided officers in support of the raid.
"All I can say is that the FBI asked us to have some officers assist them with a search warrant," Police Chief David Rausch said.
Raush said he was not informed in advance where the search was to be and did not know until the officers radioed in from the scene.
Media were barred from the Pilot campus and the entrance was blocked. Pilot employees were escorted off the corporate campus on Lonas Road.
The Knoxville-based Pilot is owner of more than 600 travel center locations across the U.S. and has more than 30,000 employees. It recorded revenues of $29.3 billion in 2011.
The company was founded more than 50 years ago by Jim Haslam and is run by his eldest son, Jimmy Haslam, who bought a majority ownership of the Cleveland Browns of the NFL last year.
Haslam stepped down as CEO after buying the Browns but resumed his role as CEO less than six months later, replacing former PepsiCo President John Compton.