Originally convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud, and witness tampering, former Flying J President Mark Hazelwood and two of his staff members are now free after a Tennessee court threw out their convictions, ruling that a secret audio recording of Hazelwood using racial slurs should not have been heard during his trial.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled 2-1 to overturn the conviction of Hazelwood, former Vice President Scott Wombold, and former regional account representative Heather Jones. The three had been found guilty in 2018 of a scheme that involved falsely promising fuel rebates and believing that truckers would be “too unsophisticated to catch on.”
The majority opinion in the appeal said, “The use of the audio recordings, in this case, jumped the rails of (federal) rules. Even if somehow otherwise admissible, the recordings are a textbook violation of (federal rules) because of the risk of unfair prejudice eviscerates any purported probative value.”
The judge in the original case allowed the recordings as a rebuttal to a defense argument that claimed Hazelwood was too smart to engage in something illegal. The audio reveals Hazelwood asking, “Where’s our greasy (racial slur) song” and then singing along with other employees to the racist lyrics of a county-western song.
The fuel rebate scandal first surfaced in 2013 when the FBI and IRS served search warrants on the truck stop’s corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee. Pilot Flying J settled with the U.S. Justice Department in 2014 for $92 million. Hazelwood was sentenced to 12 years in prison.