Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam speaks during a news conference announcing the hiring of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown as a special adviser to the NFL football team Wednesday, May 29, 2013, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two employees of the truck stop chain owned by the family of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam pleaded guilty Wednesday in a federal probe of the company's business practices.
Regional sales director Arnold Ralenkotter pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tenn. Regional accounts representative Ashley Smith Judd also pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
They are the first to be charged in the investigation. Federal prosecutors allege members of Pilot's sales team deliberately withheld rebates to boost Pilot profits and pad sales commissions.
Ralenkotter's lawyer Ed Yarbrough said his client has agreed to cooperate with authorities. Ralenkotter and Judd were charged earlier this month in a document typically used by prosecutors when the targets of an investigation are working with authorities that may eventually charge others.
The Knoxville-based chain is run by CEO Jimmy Haslam, the governor's brother. Pilot Flying J, the country's largest diesel retailer, was founded by their father.
Jimmy Haslam was at a news conference Wednesday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland to welcome back Hall of Famer Jim Brown as a "special adviser" to the team, but he did not take any questions related to the investigation.
Pilot Flying J spokeswoman Lauren Christ declined to comment on the guilty pleas. She also would not say whether the two who pleaded guilty Wednesday are still employed by the company.
A message left with the governor's spokeswoman was not immediately returned.
At least eight trucking firms have sued Pilot over the rebate program. FBI agents raided the company's headquarters April 15.
Federal prosecutors did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson III in Nashville and AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.