Trial of former Pilot executives could take up to 6 weeks

The complexity of a federal fraud case against former employees of a truck stop chain owned by the family of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam could cause the trial to take up to six weeks, attorneys told the judge Thursday.

Those indicted include former Pilot President Mark Hazelwood, former vice presidents John "Stick" Freeman and Scott "Scooter" Wombold, and five other former members of the sales team.

Pilot has paid a $92 million federal penalty and spent $85 million on a class-action settlement with 5,500 trucking companies in connection with a scheme to cheat customers out of promised discounts and rebates. The Haslams have denied previous knowledge of any wrongdoing and have not been charged.

Ten other former Pilot employees previously pleaded guilty in the scheme, which came to light after federal agents raided the company's Knoxville headquarters in April 2013.

Senior U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier on Thursday approved moving the trial to Chattanooga from Pilot's headquarters city of Knoxville. Moving the trial about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the southwest improves the chances of finding jurors who were less likely to have seen "inflammatory reports in the media," Collier said.

The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 31.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton said the government believed a fair an impartial jury could have been seated in Knoxville, but did not object to moving the trial.

Hamilton said the case against the former employees could take between 20 and 30 days, while defense attorneys said presenting their evidence could take the same amount of time. The judge said he hopes to streamline the trial to keep it within a four-to-six week timeframe.

"With a case of this length, we ask an awful lot of our juries," Collier said.

Roger Dickson, a Chattanooga attorney representing Freeman, spoke on behalf of the defense attorneys gathered in the courtroom. He said he expects there to be some disagreement over expert testimony the government plans to introduce at trial. Prosecutors said the length of their case will be dependent on the summary charts of complex financial transactions being allowed into evidence.

The indictment outlines a scheme that took place over a five-year period in which sales staff often promised customers one discount but gave them a different, lesser one. It offers several examples of employees and their bosses discussing the need to coordinate the lies they were telling customers so as not to get caught.

Freeman advised sales staff to "say one thing, do another" when it came to dealing with customers, according to the indictment. And one email quotes Freeman as advising colleagues that "we just need to sing from the same hymn book."

Other employee emails in the indictment discuss the need to determine which customers might be sophisticated enough to detect the fraud and prey only on the unsophisticated ones.

Privately held Pilot is the nation's largest diesel retailer.