Judge: It was proper for jury to hear racially charged recordings in Pilot case

Judge Curtis Collier earlier this month agreed to let jurors in the Pilot Flying J fraud trial hear several snippets that had been secretly recorded at a gathering of sales employees in 2012.

The federal judge presiding over the fraud trial for four former Pilot Flying J employees says it was relevant and acceptable for jurors to hear racially charged recordings involving the former Pilot president.

U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier on Monday filed a formal memo on why he allowed snippets of the recordings to be played for jurors earlier this month. He's previously ruled from the bench.

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"The acts captured in the recordings are defendant (Mark) Hazelwood engaging in and promoting racist talk and entertaining during a work meeting, and both allowing and encouraging his subordinates to do the same," Collier wrote.

Government prosecutors wanted the jury to hear the recordings to counter a defense contention that the former president was a strong business leader and defender of Pilot Flying J's reputation. Pilot has disavowed the recordings.

Jurors in a Chattanooga courtroom heard several, edited excerpts that were secretly taped in October 2012 by a Pilot employee who had agreed to help the government as it investigated alleged fraud. The recordings were made during a gathering of Pilot sales employees at the lake home of John Freeman, a former Pilot vice president.

As Collier noted this week in his memo, the recordings included people uttering racial epithets and making jokes about sensitivity training and Pilot's board and human resources department. Hazelwood can be heard asking that an old David Allan Coe song be played, one that uses the N word amid highly charged lyrics.

Graphic of organizational chart for Pilot Flying J showing which top employees have been indicted or pleaded guilty in a rebate scheme as of July 24, 2017.

Collier said while the defense may argue that what happened took place at a private home among friends during the TV broadcast of an NFL game, it was really much more than that.

All of those present were Pilot direct sales employees, gathered for a Pilot management meeting, he wrote. Hazelwood was the president, sitting amongst his underlings.

Defense attorney Rusty Hardin, who represents Hazelwood, strongly objected to playing the tapes, arguing they're prejudicial against his client. He's asked for a mistrial, and will almost certainly cite Collier's ruling as one reason for an appeal if Hazelwood is convicted.

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The lawyers for the other three defendants on trial -- Scott Wombold, Karen Mann and Heather Jones -- also objected. They argued that while their clients weren't present and had nothing to do with the conversations, just playing the excerpts was damaging to them.

Collier wrote that the recordings go to counter the defense's portrayal of Hazelwood's character. Hazelwood can still get a fair trial even with the evidence, the judge wrote.

Addressing the concerns of the other three defendants, Collier said he took pains to tell the jury explicitly that they were to consider the evidence only against Hazelwood and not against Wombold, Mann or Jones.

"The court is confident the jury is capable of understanding and following the court's instruction on both points. And the court is confident it will do so," he wrote.

Related: Former employee, president take stand

Related: Former assistant testifies about Hazelwood

10News, the News Sentinel and other news groups seek the recordings, transcripts of them given out to the jury and other sealed documents about them. So far the judge has not released the material.

The government alleges former Pilot sales personnel conspired to cheat some diesel fuel customers of promised fuel rebates. They say the company and some employees including Hazelwood made millions before the scam was discovered.

The alleged plot went on from at least 2008 to 2013 when the government raided Pilot headquarters in Bearden. Pilot has paid a $92 million penalty, more than $80 million in civil settlements and has been cooperating with government prosecutors.

Fourteen former employees have pleaded guilty, with some taking the stand to help the government in its case.

The trial for Hazelwood and the other three defendants began in early November. On Monday, Collier announced that the government had called its last witness and that the defense would get its turn to present evidence beginning Wednesday.