A Tennessee court has thrown out convictions against high-ranking former Pilot Flying J staffers for a years-long scheme to defraud small business truckers due to a racist secret recording played during the trial.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has overturned the convictions of former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood, former Vice President Scott Wombold, and former regional account representative Heather Jones, according to a Wednesday report from the Knoxville News Sentinel.
On February 15, 2018, Hazelwood was found guilty on charges of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud in connection with an infamous diesel fuel rebate scheme which involved Pilot Flying J employees making false promises to deliver discounted fuel to truckers who they believed were too unsophisticated to notice that they were being conned. Following a 2013 raid of company headquarters, Pilot Flying J took responsibility for the fraud scheme and paid out $92 million in fines to the federal government along with $85 million in settlements.
Wombold and Jones were also found guilty on charges connected to the scheme.
Hazelwood was later sentenced to 150 months in prison.
On Wednesday, October 14, two of the three judges on the panel sided with Hazelwood’s appeal and ruled that U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier had erred in allowing prosecutors to play secret recordings of Hazelwood making racist statements captured during a company meeting in Rockwood in October 2012.
“The use of the audio recordings in this case jumped the rails of (federal) rules. Even if somehow otherwise admissible, the recordings are a textbook violation of (federal rules) because of the risk of unfair prejudice eviscerates any purported probative value,” judges wrote in the majority opinion.
In the recording you can hear Hazelwood ask “Where’s our greasy (racial slur) song?” Court records show that former salesperson Arnie Ralenkotter responded to Hazelwood’s request by asking “How’s that sensitivity training coming?” While a racist David Allan Coe song plays during the recording, you can reportedly hear Hazelwood and other Pilot Flying J employees singing along.
At the time that Judge Collier allowed the playing of the recordings in court in January 2018, he said they were permitted as a response to the defense’s argument that Hazelwood was too smart to engage in activity that would have hurt the company that he worked for.
Collier at the time explained his decision to allow the jury to hear the recordings: “If it became known the president of Pilot engaged in vile, despicable, inflammatory racial epithets against African Americans, this could lead to boycotts and protests.”
This is a developing story.