After 12 minutes of “easy questions,” Gov. Bill Haslam was asked about the Pilot Flying J investigation during a summit on manufacturing in Washington last week “to give you the chance if you want to say anything,” reports Chris Carroll.
“Oh, well, thanks,” Haslam murmured. “I guess.”
When the laughter died down, the governor offered a full-throated defense of the family business, but Jordan’s question prompted a pained hesitation that may redefine Haslam as political opponents search for chinks in his armor.
…Democrats already are connecting the FBI investigation with an old fight with Haslam. Soon after taking office, the governor rolled back financial disclosure rules for himself and other top officials. That meant he didn’t have to disclose his assets, many of which originated with Pilot.
“I thought it was a mistake before the FBI raid. I think it’s a double mistake to continue down that path now,” Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron said. “I don’t think any of us know how severe the conflicts are or how much he’s personally profited from what appear to be — what apparently the FBI thinks — were wrongful actions.”
..In an interview after the Washington Post event, Haslam emphasized the ongoing nature of the investigation, saying he has “no doubt that the top management of the company always intends to do the right thing.”
“No night sweats,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m going to run a re-election campaign based on what I’ve done as governor.”
Like Ingram, Haslam stressed that it’s been more than a decade since he played a direct role in the company. (Note: Tom Ingram is a political consultant to Bill Haslam and has been retained as a PR consultant to Pilot Flying J and CEO Jimmy Haslam during the federal investigation.)
“It’s been so long since I’ve worked there that a whole lot of the folks that are mentioned [in the affidavit] are people I don’t even know,” he said.
The governor made that statement six hours before The Tennessean newspaper published a story that implied otherwise. The newspaper identified 10 Pilot executives in the FBI affidavit who gave a total of $56,000 to Haslam in campaign contributions.
… (Democratic party tweets cited: “Nine Pilot executives mentioned in the FBI affidavit gave a combined $56k to @BillHaslam’s campaign.” “Gov. @BillHaslam, political campaign directly benefited from Pilot Flying J’s scheme to cheat truckers, small biz.”)
In response to the Tennessean report, a Haslam spokesman stressed the governor’s army of contributors and said, “It’s natural that a Pilot employee would be one of those.”
…Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said he thought the government’s aggressive approach means there’s something sinister behind the scenes. Some have speculated pure politics; leading the investigation is Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney in East Tennessee appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
“It’s more than likely politically motivated,” West said.
Haslam rejected that outright.
“I’m not typically a conspiracy-theorist type of guy,” he said, “and I’m not in this either.
The Commercial Appeal has a story saying it’s too early to tell about political ramifications for the governor, but so far it appears to be no big deal. Included are Herron’s criticism on the financial disclosure situation and this:
Herron, a former lawmaker who dealt with Haslam before leaving his state Senate seat last fall, said that reading the FBI documents and transcripts made him “very sad.” But asked if he believes the governor had any involvement, he said, “I believe the governor. I don’t have any reason not to believe him. I think Gov. Haslam is an honest and faithful man, and I have enormous respect for him.”
The top two Democrats in the state House, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville, also referred to Haslam’s reputation, in response to a question about his decision not to expand TennCare. Fitzhugh said he and fellow Democrats believe the governor is negotiating in good faith with the Obama administration on the expansion matter.
Turner added, “I question the governor’s political judgment sometimes, but I don’t question his motives, which I think is for doing the right thing. I think he’s a good man, and I think he’s trying to do what he thinks is best for Tennessee.