CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Federal agents used a Pilot Flying J employee to try to get Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to make incriminating comments on the telephone, but court testimony suggests Haslam was aware he was making the call at their behest.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reports former sales executive Brian Mosher, who has pleaded guilty to participating in a widespread scheme to defraud trucking customers, testified Tuesday that federal agents showed up at his Iowa home in April 2013 and had him call Haslam to say, "Jimmy, we've been caught."
Mosher said Haslam replied: "I understand there are some folks at your house," and then handed the phone to a lawyer in Pilot's legal department.
Haslam was not charged and denied any prior knowledge of the scheme. Fourteen other members of the Pilot sales department have pleaded guilty. The rebate scam caused the company to pay an $85 million settlement to scammed customers and a $92 million penalty to the government.
Pilot, the largest truck stop company in the U.S., had been promising rebates and price discounts to trucking companies as an incentive to continue buying fuel from their truck stops. But records show that the rebate program was complex and discounts varied by location, so it wasn't always easy for customers to keep up with how much they were due from Pilot's program.
Much of the testimony at the trial so far has focused on how Pilot executives targeted customers they considered too unsophisticated to recognize they were being ripped off.
The four former Pilot employees on trial in Chattanooga are former President Mark Hazelwood, former vice president Scott "Scooter" Wombold and two former saleswomen, Heather Jones and Karen Mann.
Court filings submitted before the trial detailed how investigators had executed a search warrant on Mosher's home about 45 minutes before launching a large raid at Pilot's headquarters in Knoxville. Investigators had hoped Mosher would make recorded calls to other Pilot employees on their behalf, but they were likely thwarted when Mosher's wife got in contact with Wombold, who in turn informed Hazelwood.
The jury on Tuesday for the first time heard an undercover recording of a voice identified by prosecutors as belonging to Haslam. The recording was made by a salesman working undercover for the FBI and IRS at a lake house meeting of the Pilot sales team in which junior employees were instructed about the fraud scheme and the dangers of getting caught by customers who were on top of their accounts.
Haslam in the recording spoke about "Stick's deal with Western," a reference to former vice president John "Stick" Freeman once having to smooth over a relationship with trucking customer Western Express by agreeing to buy a broken-down plane for the inflated price of $1 million after being caught cheating the Nashville company .
Freeman pleaded guilty in July and is expected to testify. Jurors previously heard secret recordings of Freeman boasting about how Haslam "loved it" when the sales team swindled customers.
"He knew — absolutely," Freeman said in the recording.
Pilot was founded by family patriarch Jim Haslam, a former University of Tennessee football player, with a single gas station in 1958. His other son, Bill Haslam, was president of Pilot before being elected Knoxville mayor in 2003 and later to his current position as Tennessee governor. Bill Haslam has denied any knowledge of the scheme.