The Haslam family denies that it paid off executives at a truck stop chain, despite claims from Warren Buffett’s business.
The bribery claims made by Warren Buffett’s company were called “wild inventions” by a lawyer for the wealthy Haslam family.
But the judge didn’t say right away if those accusations would be proven at the trial in January. The trial should help figure out how much Berkshire Hathaway might have to pay the Haslams for the rest of the Pilot truck stop chain.
Both the Haslam family and Buffett’s business say the other messed with Pilot’s earnings this year to change how much Berkshire would have to pay for the Haslam family’s last 20% stake in the business if they decide to sell.
The Haslam family, which includes Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, and Bill Haslam, former governor of Tennessee, said last month that Berkshire was trying to hide Pilot’s earnings this year by changing the way it does accounting.
Finally, this week, Berkshire filed its own lawsuit, this time accusing Jimmy Haslam of trying to bribe important Pilot executives by paying them several times their yearly salaries to boost the company’s profits.
“In our opposition brief, we called Berkshire’s claims wild inventions,” the Haslams’ lawyer, Anitha Reddy, said Thursday. “We couldn’t have been more clear that we don’t agree with them.” And if Berkshire has any doubts, we think they’re not true, and we plan to beat them on whatever date the court sets.
The judge said he would decide by Friday if Berkshire’s case can be heard at the same time as Pilot’s own lawsuit trial in January. Berkshire wants the court to stop the Haslams from taking their right to sell the rest of the company to Berkshire next year because it says there are a lot of questions about how much money Pilot will make in 2023. As per the deal they made in 2017, the Haslams would still be able to sell in the future, even if the judge agrees.
Craig Lavoie, an attorney for Berkshire, said that stopping the sale next year is important because it will be hard to tell how much Pilot’s earnings have been affected by the alleged gifts. He said that Berkshire thinks at least 28 executives were offered bribes. Many of these execs buy and sell fuel for the country’s biggest truck stop chain.
Lavoie said, “Mr. Haslam’s side promises have forced the company to investigate and question many of the key employees it relies on today to run the business.”
It cost $2.758 billion for Berkshire to buy its first 38.6% stake in Pilot in 2017. The company paid an extra $8.2 billion this year to take control of 80% of the business. It then hired a new CEO and CFO. Although the price was better in 2017, Buffett told Berkshire shareholders this spring that he wished he could have bought the whole company at once. However, the Haslams wouldn’t sell it all at that time.
This year, Pilot’s chain of more than 850 stores and about 30,000 workers in the US and Canada has already helped Berkshire’s sales and profits in a big way.
Haslams said that Berkshire’s choice to use “pushdown accounting” this year meant that Pilot had to pay more for depreciation and amortization, which cut into their net income. The Haslams lost the vote at Pilot board meetings on that change.
In addition to Pilot, Berkshire owns a wide range of other companies, such as Geico insurance, BNSF railroad, a number of large utilities, and a number of smaller industrial and retail companies. The company also owns a lot of stocks, including big shares in Apple, Coca-Cola, American Express, and Bank of America.