CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — While his salesmen were ripping off trucking companies, former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood took to a stage playing the role of “Mark the driver,” testimony showed.
Jurors in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga watched a video the week of Nov. 27 titled “Mission: Ready to Roll 2011.” It captured a gathering of Pilot Flying J truck stop managers in the middle of a five-year, $92 million scheme by the nation’s largest diesel fuel retailer’s sales executives and staffers to defraud trucking companies.
Hazelwood is on trial on federal charges he was part of the conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud that 14 of his subordinates have admitted. Two others have been granted immunity. Hazelwood is joined at the defense table by former Vice President Scott “Scooter” Wombold and regional account representatives Heather Jones and Karen Mann.
‘I’m Always There’
It wasn’t clear from testimony where the event was filmed. It takes place in a large dining room with a fully equipped sound stage and theater-sized screen.
It begins with country artist Richie McDonald, former front man for the group Lonestar, seated at a piano on stage. McDonald sings the Lonestar song “I’m Already There” as images of truckers traveling the highways flash onto the screen.
The song tells the tale of a man calling from a “cold hotel room” his wife and children back home. When they lament his absence, the man says, “I’m already there. Take a look around. I’m the sunshine in your hair. I’m the shadow on the ground. I’m the whisper in the wind. I’m your imaginary friend.”
As the song ends, truckers are seen on the screen pulling their rigs into a Pilot Flying J truck stop.
Hazelwood, outfitted with a hands-free microphone, walks onto the stage wearing a baseball cap with flames on the side, a flannel shirt, jeans and belt with an oversized buckle.
‘I Am Mark the Driver’
“I am Mark the driver, and that’s where I live every day,” he tells the crowd. “Who am I? I’m 47 years old. I have three kids … I’m just trying to get them through high school. I love sports, NASCAR. I’m not a big Steelers fan, but I love football.”
Hazelwood, who testimony has shown was drawing salary and bonuses of more than a half-million dollars, told the crowd “Mark the driver” earns 38 cents per mile and must pick up his own expenses.
“If these wheels aren’t turning, that paycheck isn’t churning,” Hazelwood said. “Y’all get your expenses paid for. The trucking industry does not pay for meals for its drivers.”
Testimony in the trial, which has spanned weeks, showed sales executives sometimes justified defrauding trucking companies because those trucking company owners were fleecing drivers of the rebates Pilot Flying J did pay, albeit for lower than promised.
Two trucking company owners are shown on the screen at different points during Hazelwood’s presentation talking about the value of trucking to America and Pilot Flying J’s contribution to the industry. One of them was later identified as a fraud victim.
‘I Miss Birthdays, Ballgames’
Hazelwood tells the crowd how tough a profession truck driving can be.
“I miss birthdays, ballgames, some anniversaries,” he said. “I sleep in my truck, and there’s no restroom. I apologize for the Gatorade bottles out back.”
He gives a nod to changes in the industry — some that hurt his business, such as diesel fuel optimization software that helps truckers find the best price at any given moment. Others are societal. He notes “eight percent of drivers” are women now.
Then Hazelwood tells the crowd of truck stop managers what “Mark the driver” wants from them — clean showers, friendly faces, hot food, lots of parking, no waits and plenty of things to buy.
Video then plays of truckers inside Pilot Flying J talking about their needs.
“A lot more consideration,” one trucker said. “You know, courtesy. … We’re spending a lot of money out there.”
‘We Care. We Care. We Care.’
Hazelwood next says from the stage, where he’s been repeatedly changing baseball caps with various trucking logos, “The professional driver is the lifeblood of Pilot Flying J.”
Two Pilot Flying J staffers are then seen standing in the audience with microphones. They shout out various things Pilot Flying J has done for truckers.
“Mr. Driver, we spent $25 million remodeling showers,” one of the staffers said.
Hazelwood draws the crowd into a chant.
“Do you care about the driver?” he asks.
“We care. We care. We care,” the crowd chants back.
Hazelwood’s defense attorney, Rusty Hardin, played the video for jurors after arguing it was relevant to show them another side of his “management style.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton has presented evidence of another style, using testimony, secret recordings and Hazelwood’s own email in which Hazelwood responded with profanity and wrote “rip their (expletive)” when told two former employees were now competing with Pilot Flying J.
Hamilton and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lewen are using their witnesses — many of them conspirators — to paint a portrait of Hazelwood jetting across the country on a private Pilot Flying J jet and playing the role of ruthless, sometimes profane salesman. They want to convince the jury he’s also a master fraudster.
Brian Mosher, a former Pilot Flying J director of national accounts, testified this week that when it came to sales, Hazelwood trumped Pilot Flying J Chief Executive Officer Jimmy Haslam.
“(Hazelwood) was a better salesman,” Mosher said.
Haslam has denied knowledge of the scheme and is not charged. Pilot Flying J’s board of directors confessed criminal responsibility.