Warren Buffett's company's bribery allegations against the Haslam family won't be decided in January

Warren Buffett's company decided not to move forward with an expedited trial on its bribery allegations against the billionaire Haslam family in January under the strict conditions a judge set

Josh Funk
Monday 04 December 2023 17:40 GMT

Warren Buffett's company decided not to move forward with an expedited trial on its bribery allegations against the billionaire Haslam family in January under the strict conditions a judge set, but it will still be able to raise those concerns then as a judge considers the Haslams' rival claim that Berkshire Hathaway tried to depress the Pilot truck stop chain's earnings.

Both the Haslams and Berkshire have accused each other of trying to manipulate the profits at the nation's largest truck stop chain because those numbers will determine how much Berkshire has to pay if the family decides to sell its remaining 20% stake in the business next year as expected. The two sides agreed on a formula in 2017 when the family decided to sell the first chunk of the business that sets the price based on the earnings.

The Haslams argue that Berkshire is trying to keep earnings down with an accounting change at Pilot while Berkshire says that Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam tried to bribe executives at the truck stop chain his family used to run to inflate earnings at the company. The Haslam family includes Jimmy Haslam and former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam and their father who founded the company.

A Delaware judge already scheduled a two-day January trial on the allegations the Haslams made about the accounting change in its initial lawsuit in October. But the judge said that if Berkshire wanted to get a decision on its bribery allegations at the same time it would have to forego requesting any additional evidence beforehand and limit the number of witnesses it would call.

It won't be clear until after that January trial when Berkshire's bribery allegations will be tried.

The Haslams received $2.758 billion in 2017 when Berkshire bought its initial 38.6% stake in Pilot and another $8.2 billion this year when it took control of 80% and became the majority owner. Buffett told Berkshire shareholders this spring that he would have preferred to buy the whole company at once because the price was better in 2017, but the Haslams wouldn’t sell it all then.

It’s not clear exactly how much the remaining stake is worth. The Haslam family estimates that the stake was worth $3.2 billion before the accounting change. Berkshire disputes that figure.

The Haslams’ attorney called that accusation a “wild invention” but Berkshire said it believes Jimmy Haslam offered millions to at least 28 executives to make short-term moves that would boost profits.

Berkshire said it learned about the bribery scheme just a few weeks ago after an executive who had been offered one of the bonuses came forward to the new CEO Berkshire appointed after it became the majority owner.

Even though the bribery allegations won't be decided in January, Berkshire still plans to make them part of its defense against the Haslams' lawsuit.

Berkshire wanted the court to prevent the Haslams from exercising their option to sell the rest of the company to Berkshire next year because it says there are so many doubts about the accuracy of Pilot’s 2023 earnings. The Haslams have the option to decide to sell at the start of every year under the agreement they signed back in 2017.

The Knoxville, Tennessee-based Pilot has more than 850 locations and roughly 30,000 employees in the United States and Canada has already provided a significant boost to Berkshire’s revenue and profits this year.

In addition to the truck stops, Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire owns an eclectic assortment of other businesses including Geico insurance, BNSF railroad and several major utilities along with a number of smaller manufacturing and retail businesses. It also holds a sizeable stock portfolio with big stakes in Apple, Coca-Cola, American Express and Bank of America among other holdings.

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