NASHVILLE -- To hear Republican gubernatorial hopeful Zach Wamp tell it, GOP rival Bill Haslam has more than one conflict of interest stemming from the Haslam family's Pilot Travel Centers, the national chain headquartered in Knoxville.
"You have at least a hundred conflicts of interest," the Chattanooga congressman charged earlier this week. "They sell tobacco. They sell alcohol. They sell lottery tickets. And these are highly regulated things."
U.S. Rep. Wamp's comments came as he and other GOP candidates continue to hammer away at Knoxville Mayor Haslam, a former president of the privately held Pilot Corp., which owns and operates convenience stores in East Tennessee and owns Pilot Travel Centers that operate in 41 states.
Haslam spokesman David Smith charged Wednesday that U.S. Rep. Wamp is "grasping at straws. A Gov. Bill Haslam would handle any potential for a conflict of interest with the same kind of integrity he's showed as mayor of Knoxville."
Mr. Smith said the congressman's "demonization of entrepreneurship, hard work, job creation and success in business makes him sound less like a Tennessee Republican and more like (President Barack) Obama or a California liberal."
The independently wealthy Knoxville mayor's family members long have been major GOP fundraisers. He has dominated the Republican and Democratic field of candidates with $5.8 million in contributions from what the campaign says are about 7,400 donors.
Last week his campaign began an early advertising blitz. Among other things, it touts his previous work at Pilot Corp., the company created by his father, Jim Haslam II, and now headed by the mayor's brother, Jim Haslam III.
But the mayor's refusal to make available his federal income tax returns, while other candidates have released theirs, has provided other GOP candidates with what they see as an opening for attack. Mr. Haslam has disclosed summaries of his non-Pilot income as well as taxes paid on it. But he has said revealing the money he gets as a part owner of the company would reveal personal information about other family members as well as proprietary information.
Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons repeatedly has criticized the mayor for not disclosing his federal returns and also raised the specter of potential conflicts.
Gibbons spokeswoman Bonny Kinney said Wednesday, "Mayor Haslam clearly has a conflict of interest due to his ownership of Pilot Oil. The question is, what is the scope of that conflict? Any time a new interchange goes up, it affects Pilot Oil. How much money is Pilot making off the state lottery? We don't know."
PILOT TRAVEL CENTERS
The Knoxville-based chain has more than 300 locations and employs more than 13,000 people nationwide. It had annual revenue of $16 billion in 2008. Pilot is the nation's largest operator of travel centers and sells more over-the-road diesel fuel than any other provider.
But the mayor said last week that "everything in Pilot is owned by myself or a direct relative. The issue is, is there a conflict? They're out there every day in red and yellow stations. If they're there, everybody understands what it is. I'm not sure what it (providing income tax returns and income from
Pilot) adds to the process."
Rep. Wamp, who called Mr. Haslam a "nice man," said the issues he cited "are conflicts of interest, and to think that you can run for governor and not disclose all that is just wrong."
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said the question is "are the voters sufficiently informed about what the candidate's holdings are and when the holdings might affect what that person does in terms of governing?"
Ultimately, it comes down to "does that resonate with people who are likely to participate in the Republican primary," Dr. Oppenheimer said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...