Lawyers passionately debated the proposed playing of racially charged and secretly recorded remarks made by Pilot Flying J's former president, with the judge noting his decision wouldn't be affected by what Mark Hazelwood said, newly unsealed court records show.
U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier ultimately agreed to let jurors in the federal fraud trial hear several snippets of conversation that included Hazelwood and Pilot sales personnel talking during a casual gathering in October 2012.
Last month the jury in Chattanooga convicted Hazelwood of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of wire fraud and witness tampering. He's to be sentenced June 27.
Last week, Collier ordered the release of transcripts of the tapes as well as tape copies themselves to the public, which 10News, the News Sentinel and other media groups sought.
He also agreed to release sealed court motions about the tapes and a transcript of an in-chambers Dec. 7 conversation in which the defense, prosecution and Collier himself talked about the tapes' content.
Collier, who is black, told the attorneys during the conversation that he wouldn't let the racist content of the 2012 conversations involving Hazelwood sway him, the transcript shows.
"I have heard much, much worse," the judge said. "I've heard people direct things at me in the courtroom. So that's not going to have any effect at all on my handling of this case or, if the jury finds against a client, in the court's decision on what should be done.
"It's just another evidentiary matter to me. That's all it is."
Government prosecutors Trey Hamilton and David Lewen argued they should be allowed to present the tapes, in which Hazelwood could be heard repeatedly using the n-word repeatedly and requesting the playing of a song by David Allan Coe from the early 1980s that uses the epithet.
The government argued jurors should be able to hear the tapes because Hazelwood defense attorney Rusty Hardin offered proof during the trial that Hazelwood was a dedicated company employee who sought always to represent Pilot in a positive, professional way.
During the Dec. 7 out-of-court hearing, however, Hardin argued that use of the evidence would utterly prejudice jurors against his client.
The Houston, Texas, lawyer said he was "sad" to hear the conversations, secretly recorded by a Pilot employee working on behalf of the government.
"I'm just incredibly disappointed they've decided to play this card, because they've been waiting to try to get this in," Hardin said, according to the unsealed transcript.
He told Collier and other lawyers gathered Dec. 7 that Hazelwood wouldn't be able to recover from the evidence.
Hardin also argued - unsuccessfully - that the conversations didn't reflect on his client's character.
Collier ultimately allowed jurors to hear the three tape snippets in January after jurors returned from a one-month break from trial. Hardin sought a mistrial, which Collier declined to grant.
He's vowed to raise the issue on appeal.
Hazelwood is on house arrest awaiting sentencing.
Co-defendant Scott Wombold, a former vice president, was convicted of one count of wire fraud. Co-defendant Heather Jones, part of the inside sales team, was convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to defraud customers of diesel fuel rebates. They, too, face sentencing.
Pilot has disavowed what Pilot employees said on the tapes.
Pilot has paid a $92 million penalty for the fraud scheme that involved more than 15 former personnel including Hazelwood. It also has paid more than $80 million in civil settlements.
Fourteen former employees pleaded guilty. They also await sentencing.