By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee has granted its top alumni award to Jimmy Haslam amid an ongoing federal investigation into his family’s company, Pilot Flying J, and its legal settlement with thousands of trucking company customers.
Haslam is the CEO of Pilot, the country’s largest diesel retailer, and the owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. His brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, is the chairman of the university’s board of trustees.
The state’s flagship public university announced with little fanfare recently that Jimmy Haslam was one of four people given its Distinguished Alumnus Award, the school’s highest honor for graduates who have “excelled in their field on the national or international stage and have brought credit to UT.”
University spokeswoman Karen Ann Simsen did not address whether the investigation into rebate fraud at Pilot was considered by the panel that selected Haslam.
“Jimmy Haslam is a great friend of the University of Tennessee and an important member of the Big Orange family,” she said in an email.
The website for the school’s office of alumni affairs says the honorees are reviewed and selected by a committee of its Alumni Board of Directors.
David Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Haslam, said the governor has no role related to the alumni panel that made the selection.
Federal agents in April raided Pilot’s Knoxville headquarters. An affidavit in the case revealed that the company had systematically cheated customers in a scheme that was well known among the sales staff.
So far, seven Pilot sales employees have pleaded guilty to defrauding customers. Another two have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Jimmy Haslam has denied any previous knowledge of the scheme or any personal wrongdoing.
Pilot has sought a speedy settlement to a series of lawsuits filed against the company since the details of the investigation became public. A company attorney said this week that about 50 out of more than 6,000 Pilot customers had opted out of a settlement agreement that promises to repay any money owed with interest.
Jimmy Haslam was given a similar award by UT’s business school in 2011, which noted that he and his wife had given $10 million to fund several professorships and create the Haslam Scholars program at the school.
His spokesman Tom Ingram said Wednesday, “Jimmy is very appreciative of the honor shown him by the university.”