Bill Haslam doesn’t sound like a man who’s going to change his mind and disclose his income from Pilot Corp., the Haslam family business.
“We’re going to spend as much time as we can on who we are and why we think folks should vote for Bill Haslam for governor,” Haslam said this week.
Haslam’s Republican opponents in the governor’s race have blistered the Knoxville mayor for not reporting income from Pilot, citing potential conflicts of interest for Haslam should he become governor.
Pilot Corp., which grew from one gas station to a large chain of Pilot Travel Centers on roadways, is established as a “Subchapter S” corporation under the federal tax code. That status means gains and losses are reported on shareholders’ individual tax returns. Haslam says disclosure of his financial interest in Pilot would mean disclosing personal income of family members, which he does not want to do.
“I don’t know what it adds to the discussion,” Haslam said. “I have other family members I care greatly about that you’re already subjecting to a lot when I run, and this opens them up to a lot of things that they didn’t ask for.”
Haslam, suggesting the ownership of Pilot is obvious to the public, said he doesn’t know what divulging the income would add.
“I don’t know what the voter gains,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t hear questions about his income from voters. “I’m out talking to people all the time. I never hear that. I hear lots of conversations about jobs and education. I hear people concerned about the budget, people concerned about the direction of the country. Nobody ever asks me about that (financial disclosure), except the other candidates.”
The issue arose in December when the state’s four major newspapers, in a collaborative arrangement known as the Tennessee Newspaper Network, asked all 2010 gubernatorial candidates to provide information on their finances.
Candidates were asked in November to provide their federal income tax returns and related schedules for 2006-2008. Haslam reported money earned on investments that averaged $4.75 million a year from 2003-2008, but the submission did not include data on Pilot. Haslam’s submission on investments outside Pilot was extensive.
A copy of a letter dated Nov. 25, 2009 from the Steiner & Ellis accounting firm, addressed to Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Tom Humphrey, who wrote the income story for the Tennessee Newspaper Network, states, “If elected, all of Bill’s and Crissy’s assets, except Pilot, will be placed in a blind trust.”
Crissy is Bill Haslam’s wife. The Haslam family, headed by James Haslam Jr., the candidate’s father and founder of Pilot Corp., is one of the most influential in the state in terms of wealth, philanthropy and political involvement.
Bill Haslam is considered by many to be the frontrunner in the Republican primary to become governor, and he has collected more than $5.7 million in campaign contributions, which tops the field of four major Republican candidates and three Democrats.
Haslam has already launched a statewide television ad campaign, making him the first to do so.
“We want to do everything we can to answer every question we can,” Haslam said. “Like everything else, you try to say, ‘What do people care about, and what do people need to know if I’m going to be governor?’ Because of that, we’re releasing more than anybody who’s run in this race has released when they ran in prior races and more than is required by law and shows everything we own, I own, and every source of income I think tells people everything they need to know about where I have investments and where I might have potential conflict.”
Haslam says his interest in Pilot isn’t hidden.
“Everybody knows my relationship to Pilot,” he said. “That’s not a secret.”
One of Haslam’s Republican opponents, Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, insists Haslam has a conflict of interest, for example, when the potential for a new highway interchange is considered. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, another Republican opponent, has said Haslam has numerous conflicts since Pilot sells regulated items such as tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets.
“On road projects or anything else, if you own any asset and you’re the governor, that same question could be asked,” Haslam said. “The governor oversees and regulates things from all sorts of businesses, from farming to any other kind of commercial interest, and if you own any investments, you could say, ‘Gosh, you shouldn’t be governor.’ I don’t think we want to only have people in government who don’t own any assets.”
Haslam said it is not as though it is a hypothetical issue, given his current office.
“This isn’t a theoretical conversation. I’ve been an active mayor for six and a half years, so there is a track record on all these questions that are being asked,” he said. “I’m more than willing for people to come look at Knoxville and say, ‘All these things we’re concerned about, what’s happening in Knoxville? Would he do this or do that?’ Come check.”
He poses the question of whether the issue means you could only have a governor with no private sector involvement.
“If you say, ‘Only if you have been in government service all your life can you be governor,’ I don’t think people want to put anyone who owns assets on the sidelines like that,” he said. “On roads, the reality is, anytime you add a road, if you have an existing network of gas stations or truck stops, it could easily hurt as much as help. Road investments, like everything else we do as a state, if I’m governor, will be driven by: How can we make Tennessee the best location in the Southeast for jobs?”
Haslam said questions about such issues are being asked more of him than any other candidate in the campaign.