Judge Collier Orders Release Of Racist Tapes, Transcripts Recorded At Pilot Travel Centers Sales Meeting

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Federal Judge Curtis Collier has ordered the release of tapes and transcripts of racist comments made by members of the Pilot Travel Centers sales staff at a lake retreat.

Judge Collier said that since the trial of four Pilot employees, including former president Mark Hazelwood, is now over that the jury would no longer be affected.

Hazelwood was convicted of some counts along with Scott Wombold and Heather Jones. Karen Mann was acquitted.

The judge gave seven days for getting the items ready for release to the news media and the public.

The incident took place at the Rockwood, Tn. lake house of John Freeman, a Pilot sales director who pleaded guilty but did not testify in the trial in Chattanooga.

It was secretly recorded by a member of the sales team who began working with the government.

The tape included the playing of a racist country song using the N Word often. 

A statement from a Pilot Flying J spokesperson regarding the recordings was released:

"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."

Here is the first order:

On January 11, 2018, the Court ordered the parties to show cause why certain documents should not be unsealed. (Doc. 427.) The documents consisted of briefing in favor of and in opposition to the admission into evidence of Government Exhibits 529, 530, and 531 (collectively, the “Exhibits”); proposals and objections regarding a related limiting instruction to the jury; a transcript of the in camera hearing to determine whether the Exhibits would be admitted; and a motion for the Court to review transcripts pursuant to United States v. Robinson, 707 F.2d 872 (6th Cir. 1983).

The Government responded that it had no reason not to unseal Documents 373, 395–400, and 411, but it proposed certain redactions to Documents 372, 375, 417, and 418 before unsealing them. (Doc. 434.) Defendant Heather Jones responded that she had no objections to the Government’s position. (Doc. 438.) Defendant Scott Wombold responded in opposition to unsealing any of the documents. (Doc. 461.) No other party filed a response to the Order to state why the identified documents should not be unsealed.

The Court has reviewed the Government’s proposed redactions and finds them, with two limited exceptions, to be appropriate. The matters to be redacted, as modified by the Court, do not Case 3:16-cr-00020-CLC-HBG Document 501 Filed 03/07/18 Page 1 of 2 PageID #: 12543 2 concern any of the purposes for which the Exhibits were admitted into evidence at trial.

The interests supporting nondisclosure of these portions of the documents therefore outweigh the interests of the public in accessing this tangential information. The seal is no broader than necessary because it extends only to these specific portions of the documents.

The Court will issue a concise sealed Order directing that one proposed redaction be shortened and another be expanded. Defendant Wombold expressed two concerns with unsealing the documents: the possible reputational harm to him in “falsely suggesting that [he] possesses attributes that no person has alleged he possesses and that he has not put at issue in this case” and the increased chance that the jury would be improperly influenced as a result of the media coverage that might result from unsealing the pleadings. (Doc. 461 at 1–2.)

The Court has considered the content of the documents that will be unsealed and finds that the risk of reputational harm to Defendant Wombold from their unsealing is less compelling than the public’s interest in their disclosure. And because the trial is now concluded, improper influence on the jury is no longer a concern. The Clerk of Court is DIRECTED to unseal Documents 373, 395–400, and 411.

The Government SHALL FILE redacted versions of Documents 372, 375, 417, and 418, according to the proposal in Document 453 as modified by the Court’s accompanying sealed Order, in the public record within seven days of the issuance of this Order.

Here is the second order:

On January 12, 2018, the Court conducted a hearing on certain media outlets’ requests for access to certain recordings, briefing, and transcripts.1 Attorney Richard Hollow (“Media Counsel”) appeared on behalf of the media outlets and later filed a memorandum (Doc. 450) in support of his clients’ motion. Media Counsel presented his clients’ request for five categories of information: (1) any written motions to play any portions of certain recordings for the jury; (2) any responses or objections to the same; (3) any orders pursuant to any hearings on the same; (4) the recordings played for the jury; and (5) transcripts of the recordings played for the jury.

The Court has addressed the first three categories in a contemporaneously issued Memorandum & Order. It remains for the Court to address the fourth and fifth categories, namely the release of Government Exhibits 529, 530, and 531 and their corresponding transcripts, Government Exhibits 529-A, 530- A, and 531-A (collectively, the “Exhibits”).

1 With the exception of a limited number of sidebars and in camera hearings, the trial of this matter was open to the media and the public alike. One of the in camera hearings related to the evidence at issue here, and a transcript of that hearing will be unsealed with certain limited redactions pursuant to the Court’s contemporaneous Order. In addition, the Clerk of Court received multiple requests from media outlets for copies of other recordings that were played for the jury and introduced into evidence. Those requests were honored without objection from the parties.

 The Court has considered the positions of the parties as presented at oral argument and in written filings, including Documents 450, 461, 462, and 492, in light of the Court of Appeals’ instructions in United States v. Beckham, 789 F.2d 401 (6th Cir. 1986), and in light of the fact that the jury has now returned its verdict on all counts in the Amended Superseding Indictment. The Court notes that Defendant Mark Hazelwood, as to whom the Exhibits were admitted, asked not to prevent the release of the Exhibits, but only to delay their release until the trial was completed. Defendant Heather Jones continues to object to the release of the recordings while she explores her options to appeal. (Doc. 492.) She relies in particular on United States v. Dimora, 862 F. Supp. 2d 697 (N.D. Ohio 2012).

The situation in the present case is different from that in Dimora in significant ways. First, in Dimora, there was not merely the possibility of an appeal that might have resulted in a remand and retrial, as there is here; there were still charges pending against the defendant and others that were scheduled to be tried within the next seven months. This gave additional weight to the dueprocess concerns in Dimora that are not present here. Second, in Dimora, the recordings the court withheld from release portrayed the defendant himself engaged in conduct that could be viewed as incriminating. (Even in one recording that did not show the defendant, the conduct shown was that of another individual allegedly arranging a bribe for defendant in the form of the services of a prostitute.) The Exhibits, however, do not include Defendant Jones at all.

There has been no allegation she was present at the time of the recorded conversations or that she otherwise knew of the substance of the conversations. The conversations never mention her name, and they do not bear on her guilt or innocence on any of the charges brought against her.

The Court makes one final observation on Defendant Jones’s argument that the release of the Evidence will have a spillover effect, tainting the jury pool for a potential retrial. The jury in the trial just completed demonstrated its ability to distinguish among the different pieces of evidence introduced against the various defendants and not to allow the Evidence, admitted for a limited purpose against Defendant Hazelwood, to affect its consideration of the other Defendants. Defendant Jones and Defendant Karen Mann were similarly situated as to the Evidence, and they made similar arguments about its potential spillover effect. Defendant Mann was acquitted on the single charge against her, and Defendant Jones was acquitted on four of the five charges against her.

The Court sees no reason to fear Defendant Jones will not be able to receive a fair trial if she prevails on appeal, even if the Evidence is released.The media outlets’ request for Government Exhibits 529, 529-A, 530, 530-A, 531, and531-A is GRANTED. Specifically, the Clerk of Court is AUTHORIZED to make GovernmentExhibits 529, 529-A, 530, 530-A, 531, and 531-A open for inspection and copying, subject to thestandard provisions and copying costs published by the Clerk of Court.


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