CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The defense team for the former president of truck stop giant Pilot Flying J will make one last appeal Wednesday to keep jurors from hearing him make what a federal judge called “vile” and “despicable” racist comments and jokes.
Former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood and three former subordinates — Vice President Scott “Scooter” Wombold and account representatives Karen Mann and Heather Jones — are on trial in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga on wire fraud and mail fraud conspiracy charges.
They are accused of ripping off Pilot Flying J trucking customers by promising bigger discounts on diesel fuel than the firm paid. The alleged scheme, which spanned from at least 2008 to 2013, has cost Pilot Flying J's board of directors $92 million in criminal penalties and $85 million in lawsuit settlements. The firm also is paying the defense tab for Hazelwood and the three others.
Fourteen former Pilot Flying J executives and direct sales staffers have pleaded guilty. Two more were granted immunity. Pilot's board confessed criminal responsibility. Pilot Flying J Chief Executive Officer Jimmy Haslam, who also owns the Cleveland Browns, denies involvement and is not charged.
'Mark the driver'
The Browns, the “entire population of Cleveland, Ohio,” and the city of Oakland, Calif., were on the receiving end of what U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier called disparaging, racist commentary by Hazelwood and other then-Pilot Flying J sales executives that was captured on secret recordings made by a mole during an investigation of the fraud by the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation Division.
Federal prosecutors Trey Hamilton and David Lewen want jurors to hear three such recordings to counteract the characterization of Hazelwood by his defense team as a hardworking, hard-charging executive with a heart for truckers.
Collier not only had blocked the prosecutors from using the recordings as evidence but kept the entire legal debate behind closed doors and all records sealed. That changed in early December after defense attorney Rusty Hardin, who heads Hazelwood's defense, played for jurors a video titled “Mark the Driver.”
The video was recorded at a meeting of Pilot Flying J truck stop managers and featured Hazelwood, dressed in jeans, big belt buckle, flannel shirt and ballcap, playing the role of trucker, vowing his love for NASCAR, football and family.
Although Collier again held the legal debate in chambers and out of the presence of the jury and the public, descriptions of sealed documents filed in the record show Hamilton and Lewen then filed a motion arguing they should be allowed to play the racist recordings because Hardin had made Hazelwood's character an issue in the trial.
When Collier took the bench on the last day of trial before the holiday break, he finally revealed publicly a description of the contents of the recordings and said he would now allow jurors to hear them.
The recordings were made by former Pilot Flying J salesman Vincent Greco, who had turned FBI mole. Collier indicated Hazelwood's remarks were made in the presence of a team of Pilot Flying J sales executives.
“Mr. Hazelwood's utterances are beyond the pale,” Collier said. “Several subordinates of Mr. Hazelwood were present. Mr. Hazelwood was in a position of authority over them.”
Collier said Hazelwood and various sales executives made racially offensive and disparaging comments about “the entire population of Cleveland, Ohio,” as well as the Cleveland Browns and the city of Oakland, Calif. He did not elaborate on the specifics.
The judge said that if the recordings or the contents of those recordings had been made public while Hazelwood was still president of Pilot Flying J, black employees who had been fired “might have determined their terminations” were because of their race and sued, and customers would have been outraged.
Collier said Hazelwood and his subordinates also disparaged women in the secret recordings. It is not yet clear exactly when the recordings were made or in what setting. But Collier, who is black, called the recordings “vile” and “despicable.”
Defense: Reconsider, Judge
Collier's announcement prompted a flurry of legal defense objections from all four defendants and raised questions about whether Mann and Jones, who apparently were not present when the racist recordings were made, will be unfairly smeared by them in the eyes of the jury.
Collier ordered all documents about the recordings and the recordings themselves to remain sealed pending a hearing Wednesday morning. But descriptions of the sealed documents contained in the court record show Hazelwood is asking Collier to reconsider his decision. There are similar motions by Wombold, Jones and Mann.
The trial began in November, but scheduling issues involving jurors and the judge have limited the actual number of days spent in trial. Jurors are not being sequestered and have been on break from the trial since Dec. 7.
Pilot Flying J's board has a legal team — Nashville firm Neal & Harwell — present in the courtroom to monitor the goings-on in the trial and to assist current employees summoned to testify. Pilot Flying J also has a public relations firm tracking the trial and media coverage.
After Collier said in December he would allow the racist recordings to be played in open court, Pilot issued the following statement:
“The tapes described in court (in December), recorded over five years ago and involving former sales representatives of Pilot Flying J, are saddening and troubling. This kind of behavior is not acceptable, tolerated or reflective of the values of the company. No current team member of Pilot Flying J was present or participated in these conversations.”