CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Jason Holland was new to the art of defrauding trucking companies when he attended a training session on it inside the Knoxville headquarters of the nation’s largest diesel fuel retailer, and he was uneasy, recordings showed.
“Welcome to the gray side,” former Pilot Flying J regional account representative Holly Radford told Holland.
“And I’m learning it,” Holland responded on a secret recording played for jurors the week of the Nov. 20 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga. “And I’ll be honest, I’m struggling with the gray part.”
Fraud Part of Required Training
Holland is not charged in the five-year fraud conspiracy Radford and 13 other former Pilot Flying J staffers admit they carried out by paying trucking firms far less in fuel discounts than promised and lying when caught cheating.
Four others, including former President Mark Hazelwood, are standing trial. Two have been granted immunity. Pilot Flying J’s board of directors has admitted criminal responsibility. Chief Executive Officer Jimmy Haslam denies knowledge and is not charged.
The FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation Division had a mole inside Pilot Flying J – Texas salesman Vincent Greco – and outfitted him with a wire. In November 2012, Greco recorded training sessions then-executive Brian Mosher hosted on ripping off trucking companies.
Testimony has shown the daylong training, which covered a variety of topics, was authorized by Pilot Flying J and employees were required to attend. John “Stick” Freeman, then a vice president, suggested in another set of secret recordings a break-out session on the mechanics of carrying out fraud. Hazelwood and co-defendant Scott “Scooter” Wombold, also a vice president then, knew about the fraud session and attended, the recordings showed.
‘You Gotta Get Your Mind Comfortable’
Holland is recorded as he questioned lying to his customers – trucking firms.
“I said I was going to be quiet,” Wombold interjected. “Think of it this way.”
Wombold suggested that if Holland wasn’t comfortable lying, he could instead be vague with his trucking firm customers. He used an example of telling a firm Pilot Flying J would need to cap the company’s rebate in case the gap between the diesel fuel prices the truck stop giant was paying and what truckers paid got too big for Pilot Flying J.
The customer, he said, wouldn’t balk so long as the company was getting a check, and he would be lulled into not complaining if that check amount began to drop.
“Brian and I have worked as closely together as anybody,” Wombold said. “I might be a little more in your camp and here’s what I might do with that – I might just wrap my head around and say, ‘Hey, maybe you talk to the customer’ and say, ‘Hey, if our margins blow out, it’s only fair that we should get some of that back.”
Mosher added, “Just tell them, ‘I’m going to give you (a rebate)’ … Might be a (rebate) 19 times (less) but it’s a rebate.”
Holland said the explanation “really clicked” with him.
“Jason, you gotta get your mind comfortable with that,” Wombold said.
Jurors Free for Month
Federal prosecutors Trey Hamilton and David Lewen have been using snippets of the secret recordings as they mounts their case against Hazelwood, Wombold and regional account representatives Heather Jones and Karen Mann.
As the trial progresses, though, jurors will hear from Freeman, Mosher and Greco in person and the recordings in full.
The trial, carried out in Chattanooga largely because that’s where U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier holds court, is in its ninth day over a three-week span. Both sides have estimated the need for 30 trial days. But Collier last week said a juror had a trip planned soon and he also had a need for a week off, so he will be suspending the trial beginning Dec. 11. The trial won’t resume until Jan. 8, he said.
That means jurors will return to their daily lives for nearly a month while under strict orders not to talk to anyone about the case, listen to anyone speak about it or read media accounts on it. There is no way to police jurors, though.
It is not uncommon for juries to remain free to go home at night in criminal trials since a typical trial spans only a few days. But a month-long recess is atypical. Collier announced the schedule late Tuesday so it’s not known if either side will challenge it. None of the throng of lawyers involved in the case – the defense is on Pilot Flying J’s tab – objected immediately.