One side portrays them as schemers out to make big bucks in a cutthroat business. The other argues they're being unfairly painted in a case long on accusations and short on actual proof.
The defense wrapped up its closing arguments Tuesday afternoon in the federal case of the former Pilot Flying J president and three sales execs accused of conspiring to rip off some trucking customers of promised diesel fuel rebates.
Rusty Hardin, arguing on behalf of Mark Hazelwood, a nearly 30-year Pilot employee and former president, closed out the afternoon insisting the government had failed to show his client conspired with anyone and blasting the prosecution for seeking a witness tampering charge against him.
Attorneys Jonathan Cooper and David Rivera, representing Heather Mann and Scott Wombold respectively sought earlier in the day in U.S. District Court to persuade jurors the government had failed to make a solid case against their clients.
On Wednesday morning, the prosecution will get 90 minutes to rebut the defense, and then jurors can begin considering the charges.
'Put it in writing'
The defense team for Scott Wombold, a former Pilot vice president, argued Wombold actually spoke out in company meetings against cheating customers, insisting to co-workers that they needed to "put it in writing" when they wanted to change fuel sales deals.
The government alleges that at least some times sales execs would change a promised rebate rate for some customers without ever telling them. Rivera said, in fact, that some of the Pilot conspirators tried to keep Wombold out of email loops when discussing fraud targets and plans.
Rivera told jurors his client only signed off on fuel deals arranged by subordinates -- not any fraud itself. He didn't known what happened on the "back end of the deal," when rates could be changed and customers cheated, Rivera said.
He pointed to the company's star salesman, Brian Mosher, who had pleaded guilty and testified as a government witness, as a leader of the fraud who often got his way because he was so well respected.
The government says secret recordings made in 2012 show Wombold was clearly aware of the fraud scheme.
The government also sought counts against Wombold alleging he lied to federal agents the day they raided Pilot headquarters in April 2013. He's accused of lying when he said he was unfamiliar with the word manuel, which amounted to a code word for the way in which some sales personnel defrauded clients, the government alleges.
Rivera told jurors the word had been tossed around loosely in a secretly taped conversation. Even if Wombold had heard the term, there's no proof he knew what it meant, the lawyer said.
Also, Rivera said, Wombold was under stress when agents confronted him the day of the raid.
Acting in 'good faith'
Defense attorney Cooper reminded jurors only one charge -- conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud -- had been leveled against his client, Karen Mann. The other three defendants face multiple counts.
Mann worked as an "inside" sales associate, meaning she was based at company headquarters in Knoxville and worked with salesmen who roamed the field. The outside salesman cut all the fuel deals, Cooper argued. It was Mann's job to implement discounts and rebate changes.
Mann followed the direction of superiors who would tell her when to change customers' rebate deals, he said. She thought the adjustments she made were "justified," he said.
"Karen Mann herself made no misrepresentations to any of her trucking customers," Cooper said.
She did her job and made rebate rate changes acting in "good faith" that she was doing what she was supposed to be doing, he argued.
At one point when she earned praised for her work in direct sales, Mann replied by email that she loved it, testimony showed.
Cooper said Mann, who had previously received a company spirit award, was reflecting the enthusiasm she felt for Pilot and her job. The government, however, alleges the remark showed her zeal for taking part in the conspiracy.
"Misuse of power"
Hardin, speaking on behalf of Hazelwood, closed out the afternoon during a two-hour argument.
The government sought to portray Hazelwood as the overall leader of the sales force who knew everything that staff was involved in. He'd started with Pilot in 1985 and worked his way up until he eventually became president in 2012.
Hazelwood did so well that he eventually was included as a partial owner of the privately held billion-dollar company, evidence showed.
But Hardin said the government had failed to actually offer any proof that Hazelwood conspired with any specific person to defraud anyone.
In fact, Hardin argued, Hazelwood was so busy traveling from 2008-13, he couldn't keep specific watch on everything his subordinates were up to.
At Hazelwood's direction, sales staff filed weekly "trip reports" with him that detailed their sales contacts and activities. The government alleges conspirators included instances when they were cheating customers in those reports.
Hardin, however, argued Hazelwood left the office hundreds of times -- traveling every week of every year. He was too busy to do more than give a cursory glance to the reports, to ensure his staff was actually on sales calls, he said.
Hazelwood's itineraries show he made more than 3,800 trips out of town during the period, Hardin said.
The defense attorney also sought to show that Pilot sales staff were careful to avoid speaking specifically about fraud opportunities whenever Hazelwood was around. They only spoke candidly about ripping off some customers whenever he was absent, he said.
Harden became more animated when criticizing the government's decision to seek a witness tampering charge against Hazelwood. The government alleges that Hazelwood in June 2014, after leaving the company, called his former executive assistant and told her he actually hadn't read all the trip reports he'd asked her over the years to collect.
Sherry Blake, the assistant, testified last month she felt "used" by Hazelwood when he called to tell her that. She also testified she continued to wish him well and texted him months later on his wedding anniversary.
Hardin said the tampering charge represented over-reach by the government.
"What did he do?" Hardin asked jurors. "He called his secretary -- and he didn't tell her what to say, but he pleaded his side. That's an outrageous use of that statute (by the government)," he said.
On Monday, assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton spent hours in the afternoon reminding the Chattanooga panel of the scads of evidence he and co-prosecutor David Lewen have presented in seeking guilty verdicts for Mark Hazelwood, Scott Wombold, Heather Jones and Karen Mann.
Then, an attorney for Jones had a chance to make his final pitch on her behalf.
Closing arguments are expected to conclude Tuesday afternoon, with jury deliberations likely to begin Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court here.
The four are accused of conspiring in a multimillion-dollar fraud that stretched from at least 2008 to 2013, when federal agents raided Pilot headquarters in Knoxville.
The government accuses Hazelwood, the former president, of overseeing and even leading the charge to find ways to make more and more money off some unsuspecting customers who thought they were getting better rebate deals on fuel purchases than actually proved true. Internally the practice referred to "manual" rebates.
Often, testimony showed, customers didn't even know they were being denied what they deserved.
Hamilton told jurors each of the defendants on trial played an active role in keeping the scheme alive. Jones, for example, handled "the gyration," massaging columns of rebate figures so that they appeared legitimate.
Wombold, a former vice president, was present at a meeting in late 2012 in which newer Pilot employees were taught how to finesse rebate numbers and win the confidence of customers, he said.
That meeting was secretly recorded by an insider working to gather evidence for the government, and the tape shows Wombold knew what company sales staff were up to and approved of it, Hamilton argued.
A single penny could make a difference when it came to what customers were promised and what they actually got back in fuel rebates, the prosecutor said.
"Five cents in the diesel fuel world is a big deal," he told jurors. "The power of the penny."
Hamilton told jurors the government's evidence showed Hazelwood kept abreast of the progress of the rebate fraud through weekly reports he got from the direct sales staff. Even if he was out of town on business, he'd praise deals that helped Pilot and exhort the staff to keep pushing, the prosecutor said.
Another secret recording revealed that Hazelwood in a sales gathering in Orlando in February 2013 began to push for new ways to make even more money with fraudulent pricing, Hamilton said.
Defense attorney Rusty Hardin has sought to show Hazelwood traveled so much he could not have known what some direct sales staff members were up to. Hazelwood is charged with taking part in the conspiracy and also with trying to influence the potential testimony of his former executive assistant after he left Pilot in May 2014.
Hardin is expected to make his closing argument to jurors on Tuesday, as will attorneys for Mann and Wombold.
On Monday afternoon, once Hamilton concluded, attorney Ben Vernia rose to defend Jones.
Vernia portrayed his client as mostly doing what she was told to do by her boss, Brian Mosher, a sales star on the Pilot team who also was considered a master of manipulating manual rebates.
"We're not contesting that there were some people doing very bad things at Pilot," Vernia said, alluding to 14 former staff members who have pleaded guilty. Some have testified at trial.
Jones, however, had very little to do with any crime, he said.
She typically followed what Mosher told her to do, he said, including communicating with customers about rebate rates.
When she began to question what was happening, he reminded jurors that she asked Mosher, her boss, if what they were doing was OK.
"She asked for some justification for it, and he told her it was industry practice," Vernia argued.
Related: Pilot trial nears end
The defense attorney also told jurors the evidence has shown she made very little actual commission off the fraudulent side of the operation. The government introduced some emails that were "cherry-picked" to try to paint Jones as a conspirator in the plot to rip off fuel customers, he said.
Jones faces counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to engage in mail and wire fraud.
While jurors will likely begin deliberations Wednesday, it's doubtful they'll complete their job by day's end. They have weeks of evidence to sort through for four defendants as well as numerous criminal counts.
The panel is not expected to work Thursday or Friday, meaning deliberations likely will resume next week.
The trial is being held in Chattanooga because of extensive publicity over the raid of Pilot headquarters in Knoxville and the criminal case. U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier is presiding over the trial that began in early November.
Pilot has paid a $92 million penalty as well as more than $80 million in civil settlements as a result of the fraud.