Federal Jury At Chattanooga Hears Tape Of Racist Remarks By Former Pilot President; Hearing Set On Release Of Transcript

  • Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A federal jury at Chattanooga on Wednesday morning heard a tape of racist remarks by former Pilot President Mark Hazelwood. 

In the secretly recorded tape at a Pilot sales meeting in Rockwood, Tn., Hazelwood made fun of the Cleveland Browns owned by Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam. 

There were frequent references to the "N" word and playing of a country song using the "N" word repeatedly at the late night gathering that involved heavy drinking. 

There were derogatory remarks about black residents of Cleveland as well as Oakland, Calif., home of another NFL franchise. 

Hazelwood also referred unfavorably to "f------" Fred Smith and Lee Scott, two Pilot board members.

Rusty Hardin, attorney for Hazelwood, said he "deeply regrets" the statements made that night.

A spokesperson for Pilot afterward issued this statement: "We are very disturbed and appalled by the extremely offensive and deplorable comments recorded over five 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."

After a request for a copy of the lake house transcript from a Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter, Judge Collier said he conferred with attorneys and they object to its release.

However, he set a hearing for Friday at 1:15 p.m. on the issue.

The tape was admitted over the strenuous objections of attorneys for Hazelwood as well as three other former Pilot employees charged with wire and mail fraud.  They are Scott Wombold, Karen Mann and Heather Jones. 

When the racist country song was being played, regional sales manager Arnie Ralenkotter commented, "How's that sensitivity training coming along?" He apparently referred to a company program aimed at promoting positive racial relations.

The graphic testimony was allowed by Judge Curtis Collier, who is black. An alternate on the jury is black.  Judge Collier said the proof was allowed in response to defense proof that Hazelwood was an excellent company president. The defense earlier played a 40-minute video entitled "Mark, the Driver" in which Hazelwood gave a sales pep talk encouraging employees to cater to truck drivers' needs.  

Judge Collier said the jury should consider whether the comments on the tape if made public could have "blown up" against Pilot and caused trucking customers to move their business to competitors.  

The judge earlier said the comments made at the lake house were "beyond the pale." 

The tape was secretly recorded by a sales director, Vincent Greco, who was secretly working with the FBI. It was recorded at the lake house of Pilot sales director John Freeman. 

Defense attorneys said the evidence was so inflammatory that there should be a mistrial declared or Hazelwood should be tried separately from the other three defendants. 

One of the lead agents on the case said he began investigating Pilot in July 2011. He said Greco made a number of secret recordings.

He said just prior to the lake house meeting that agents met Greco at an exit of I-40 at Knoxville and provided him with a small silver recording device that would fit in a pocket. He was told how to cut it off and on. Agents later retrieved the device from him near the Knoxville Airport.

One attorney asked the agent about the remarks on the tape: "There are terrible statements, aren't they, sir?"

He replied, "They're not good."

An attorney for Ms. Mann asked if there was evidence she had ever made such remarks. The agent said there was an email "that could be viewed in an unsavory manner." The attorney asked if it involved "the inability of some people to speak clear English."

The trial resumed Wednesday after a month-long delay for the holidays. 

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