Judge releases racially charged recordings in Pilot case

Portions of the recordings were played by government prosecutors during the trial of four former Pilot executives.

A federal judge has agreed to release several secretly recorded and racially charged conversations involving former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood and other company executives.

Judge Curtis Collier issued two orders Wednesday authorizing the unsealing and release of the recordings and some related documents.

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The judge's decision comes in response to request by WBIR, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WKYC-TV in Cleveland to obtain copies of the recordings.

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Portions of the recordings were played by government prosecutors during the fraud trial of four former Pilot executives, including Hazelwood. The trial ended in February with Hazelwood being found guilty of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit mail/wire fraud and witness tampering.

A Pilot company spokesperson issued the following statement Thursday:

"As we conveyed in January when the tapes were played in court, we are very disturbed and appalled by the extremely offensive and deplorable comments recorded over 5 years ago involving a small group of former sales employees. This kind of behavior is reprehensible, not tolerated, nor reflective of the guiding principles of Pilot Flying J and does not represent the values of the dedicated 28,000 team members that we have today.

“As soon as the Company was made aware of these tape recordings, immediate action was taken. The employees who participated were held responsible and are no longer with the Company. No current team member of Pilot Flying J was present or participated in this incident."

Former Pilot vice president Scott Wombold was found guilty on one count of wire fraud, and the jury found Heather Jones, who worked in direct sales at Pilot, guilty on one count of conspiracy to commit mail/wire fraud.

The recordings in question were made in October 2012 at a lake house in Rockford owned by a former Pilot vice president, John Freeman.

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Snippets played during the trial showed several people lobbing insults about the Cleveland Browns and Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Hazelwood was heard inquiring about playing a blatantly racist song from the early 1980s by musician David Allan Coe that frequently refers to the N word.

Collier heard arguments for and against unsealing the recordings in January, and issued his order Wednesday.

WBIR will review the documents and is seeking copies of the recordings from the U.S. District Court Clerk's Office.

Fourteen former Pilot employees pleaded guilty in the scheme before the trial began in November. One former employee, Karen Mann, was acquitted of the one charge against her.

Collier is currently scheduling sentencing dates for all of the defendants. Hazelwood is currently under house arrest as he waits to be sentenced on June 27.

The Knoxville News Sentinel contributed to this report.