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'Vile' and 'despicable' Pilot Flying J recordings disparaging Cleveland Browns released

Posted: 9:39 AM, Jan 11, 2018
Updated: 2018-03-08 18:38:53-05

A series of recordings labeled "vile and "despicable" by the judge who presided over the Pilot Flying J trial have been released.

In January, a Federal judge allowed jurors to hear part of the recordings after prosecutors and the defense negotiated a limited release of them, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

The judge has described the recordings as "vile" and "despicable." The recording played in court showed the ex-workers in a rowdy meeting disparaging the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns, the newspaper reported.

Pilot Flying J is controlled by the family of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The Haslams were not at the meeting and have not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The four ex-workers on trial were accused of a scheme to shortchange trucking customers on diesel rebates. Fourteen former members of the Pilot sales team have pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme. The company paid a $92 million penalty to the federal government and settled a class-action lawsuit for $85 million. Prosecutors say the scheme ran from at least 2008 until agents raided the company's headquarters in 2013.

The audio played in court included former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood using a racial epithet and saying derogatory things about the Browns.

Hazelwood's attorney, Rusty Hardin, brought Hazelwood's character and business sense into the trial, painting him as too smart of a businessman to do anything to endanger the company. That gave the prosecution an opening to use the recordings to dispute the defense's position.

RELATED:  Former top execs at Jimmy Haslam owned Pilot Flying J found guilty of conspiracy in fraud case

The other defendants in the case -- former Vice President Scott "Scooter" Wombold and former sales representatives Heather Jones and Karen Mann -- have said they aren't on the recordings and are being prejudiced by them. The judge declined to declare a mistrial for them or allow separate trials.

The recordings were made by a former Pilot Flying J worker.

The company has said Jimmy Haslam was not aware of any wrongdoing within the company, and the governor has not been involved with the company's business activities in recent years.

"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," a Pilot Flying J spokesman said in a statement in January. "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."

The statement said the company took action as soon as officials became aware of the recordings and that the employees who participated are no longer with the company. No one currently working for Pilot Flying J was present or participated, the statement said.

A Pilot Flying J spokesperson released the following statement:

 "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."

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