CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WATE) – Four former Pilot Flying J employees, including ex-president Mark Hazelwood, are standing trial for allegedly ripping off trucking customers. The jury was seated and opening statements began on Monday.
“Evidence will show that Pilot’s sales department was infected with fraud,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lewen told jurors in opening statements.
The government alleges that Hazelwood, former vice president of sales Scott Wombold, and former account representatives Heather Jones and Karen Mann, lied to and cheated trucking companies out of money and promised discounts when they were employed at Pilot Filying J, the nation’s largest diesel fuel retailer.
“They were unified by a shared goal,” Lewen said. “A goal of inducing as many trucking companies as possible to fuel at Pilot, instead of other competitors.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton said in court that the four defendants, along with a number of others who already pleaded guilty to fraud charges, executed a five-year scheme to withhold funds from customers while scoring themselves and the company fraudulently earned profits. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service began investigating the truck stop giant in 2011, collecting evidence through secret recordings and help from within the company. This eventually prompted a raid of the Pilot Flying J Knoxville headquarters in April 2013.
“Each of these defendants lied and cheated their way to profits,” Lewen said. “They chose customers that were easy targets, so they wouldn’t get caught. These pennies they cheated the companies became pennies in their pockets.”
Most of day one of the fraud trial was dedicated to jury selection. The selection process was met with two primary challenges: the high profile nature of the case and the projected time duration for the trial.
The trial was moved out of Knoxville, the home of Pilot Flying J, to Chattanooga in hopes of bettering the chances of finding a fair and impartial jury. However, publicity surrounding the case still proved an issue miles away, with 16 of the potential jurors summoned acknowledging prior knowledge of the case.
The other challenge remains the anticipated length of trial, with the government and defense telling U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier in court Monday that they need at minimum 15 days each to present their cases to the jury.
This, combined with Fridays off and breaks for holidays, extends the trial to at least mid-December, possibly even 2018.
Judge Collier denied attorneys on both sides the opportunity to direct questions to potential jurors in an effort to expedite the selection process. The court sat a jury of twelve people, seven women and five men, along with four alternates.
The four defendants face a number of charges, including conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud.
A number of other former Pilot employees pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier in the year. Some of those people are expected to testify against their former co-workers in this trial.