Recording of racial epithet played at Pilot Flying J trial

The fraud trial for four former executives and sales staff at the truck stop chain Pilot Flying J took a detour Wednesday when prosecutors played a portion of secret recordings that included one of the defendants saying the n-word and disparaging his boss' NFL team.

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 are accused in 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 the 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 position.

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 has declined to declare a mistrial for them or allow separate trials.

The recordings were made by a former Pilot Flying J worker. The newspaper has asked that transcriptions of the recordings be unsealed.

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 Wednesday. "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.