Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter today criticized opponent Bill Haslam for what McWherter says are business connections the Haslam family’s company, Knoxville-based Pilot Travel Centers, has with Iran and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
“This is about who Bill Haslam owes and the type of people he surrounds himself in business with,” McWherter said during an afternoon news conference.
McWherter was referring to the 2008 sale of a 47.5 percent stake in Pilot to CVC Capital, a Luxembourg-based private equity firm that also invests in funds across the world. CVC invests in a company called Evonik Industries, which operates in the real estate, chemical and energy sectors. Evonik’s Chemicals Business Area has trading relationships with Iran and Egypt, according to a statement posted on its website.
Evonik has maintained those relationships for more than 40 years, according to the same investor relations statement. CVC Capital acquired a 25 percent stake in Evonik in June 2008, according to materials distributed by the McWherter campaign Monday. Evonik also operates 10 power plants in Germany and one in Turkey, one in Colombia and one in the Philippines.
In addition, Evonik owns the Plexiglas trademark in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia; the product is called Acrylite in the Americas.
Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said the claims are "silly and insulting to the voters of Tennessee."
“Mike's desperate attack failed once so he’s back to try it again," Smith said. "His father had it right when he recognized the value of this homegrown Tennessee company, and we continue to be surprised by Mike’s persistent anti-business tone."
Most of Haslam’s income comes from Pilot, but the candidate has refused to offer a full financial disclosure during the campaign, arguing that he is protecting the interests of a private business. Haslam removed himself from a decision-making role in the company in 2003, when he was first elected mayor of Knoxville.
Asked by reporters whether McWherter was suggesting, by invoking Iran, that Haslam has ties to a possible nuclear program being established by the Iranian government, the Democratic candidate demurred, returning to a familiar line of criticism about Haslam failing to fully disclose his holdings through Pilot.
McWherter also said Pilot is incorporated in Delaware, which has relaxed corporate tax codes. He asked rhetorically whether the Haslam family’s company was skirting Tennessee taxes by incorporating in Delaware. But when a reporter suggested that might be part of a strategy for the company to eventually go public, McWherter said he didn’t know why Pilot was registered there, just that it raised questions.