Judge expected to decide on release of transcripts of racist audiotapes in Pilot Flying J fraud trial

January 12, 2018 GMT

Judge expected to decide on release of transcripts of racist audiotapes in Pilot Flying J fraud trial

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee – A federal judge is expected to rule Friday whether to unseal transcripts of audiotapes that recorded former employees of Pilot Flying J making offensive racial slurs, and lampooning the Cleveland Browns and their fans.

Segments from the audiotapes were played Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, where former company president Mark Hazelwood and three others are on trial on charges of conspiring to defraud tens of millions of dollars from unsuspecting trucking companies in a rebate scheme.

Federal prosecutors said the tapes counter defense claims that Hazelwood was a man of excellent character who would never do anything to hurt the company and its image. Despite objections from attorneys, Collier permitted part of three tapes to be played in court. A clerk gave jurors transcripts of those recordings.

The audiotapes reveal a number of former executives making the statements, but it is impossible to determine who made them without the transcripts. Collier, citing an objection from a defense attorney, refused to release the transcripts to reporters. He did, however, set a hearing for 1:15 p.m. Friday.

The Plain Dealer has joined the Knoxville News Sentinel and other media outlets in seeking the transcripts and documents related to the transcripts.

On Thursday, Collier said in a document that the issue of the transcripts prompted him to consider whether other sealed documents should be made public. He said he refused to unseal two documents and a disk that were related to the transcripts. He said the documents are of different versions of those given to jurors.

“These documents and exhibits contain sensitive or personal information that has not been introduced into evidence,″ Collier wrote. “The Court continues to find the interests supporting nondisclosure of these items to outweigh the interest of the public in accessing the information.″

Collier gave prosecutors and defense attorneys seven days to show why more than a dozen other documents should not be released.

Pilot Flying J is the family business of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. He is not on the tapes. He has not been charged in the fraud scheme, and he denies allegations that he knew about the scheme. The statements from the former sales executives came in October 2012, just months after Haslam purchased the Browns in 2012.

The four on trial are accused of scheming to defraud trucking firms by skimming money from rebates that should have been paid to those companies based on the amount of fuel they bought. Authorities said the scheme ran from at least 2008 through April 2013, when the FBI and IRS raided the company’s headquarters. So far, 14 people have pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tennessee. Pilot Flying J has paid more than $84 million in civil settlements to trucking companies, plus a $92 million penalty to the U.S. Justice Department to avoid criminal charges against the company.