Closing arguments begin in Pilot Flying J fraud trial

Local News

After 19 days of listening to witness testimony and evaluating evidence, the jury began to hear closing arguments in Pilot Flying J federal fraud case on Monday.

Four former Pilot Flying J employees share a seat at the defense table, in a trial that has spanned more than three months.

Former Pilot president Mark Hazelwood, ex-vice president Scott Wombold, and previous inside sales representatives Heather Jones and Karen Mann all face charges for conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Hazelwood additionally faces charges for witness tampering, and Wombold is charged with making false statements to the FBI and IRS.

In closing arguments Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton spent two hours walking through his case with the jury. He alleged that the defendants, along with 14 others who have already pleaded guilty, worked together to advance a conspiracy, in a scheme to cheat trucking customers out of promised fuel rebates.

“This scheme was at the heart of the conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud that infected the sales team at Pilot Flying J,” Hamilton said in closing arguments.  

Pointing to emails and financial records, Hamilton reminded jurors of how people at Pilot profited from the scam that targeted less sophisticated truckers, baited them with false promises, and shorted them discount checks through fraudulent manual rebates.

Federal prosecutors alleged that the people involved in the conspiracy were motivated by money and market share for Pilot, with the number of truck stops in its network climbing from 300 in 2008, when the conspiracy began, to 475 in 2012, with earnings jumping from $420 million in 2008 and $830 million in 2012.

“Thankfully, we have a mail and wire fraud statute to criminalize this kind of behavior,” Hamilton said.

Not only did the company reap the financial benefits of the fraud scheme, but so did the alleged co-conspirators.

Evidence shows Hazelwood’s annual earnings went from $13.9 million in 2008 to $26.9 million in 2012.

The government also  took the time in closing arguments to revisit testimony from the half dozen former Pilot workers who took the stand during trial, admitting under oath to knowing that the conspiracy they participated in was wrong and voluntarily contributing to it anyway.

“The United States has proven a conspiracy took place… and [it’s] proven that all of these defendants are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all of the offenses charged in the indictment,” Hamilton said.

When the defense rose to make its case, it painted a more ambiguous picture.

Ben Vernia, attorney representing Heather Jones, called into question the evidence, saying that nothing presented in court showed that his defendant plotted to trick customers.

Vernia stated before the court that Jones was simply following directions from her supervisor, Brian Mosher, who pleaded guilty in the conspiracy, and did not have any intent to cheat customers.

“She asked him if what they were doing was okay,” Vernia said, “He told her it was an industry practice.”

He also questioned the credibility of the witnesses, arguing that the people who have already entered a guilty plea have an incentive to help the government in trial, in exchange for lesser sentences.

Closing arguments are set to continue Tuesday picking up with arguments from attorneys of Karen Mann, Scott Wombold, and Mark Hazelwood. Federal prosecutors will then present its rebuttal. Jury deliberations can start as early as Wednesday

A verdict may not come until mid-February, as jurors are only scheduled to work through Wednesday and then return Feb. 12.

Pilot has acknowledged criminal responsibility for the fraud scheme, paying $92 million in government fines and more than $80 million in settlements to truckers who were shorted.

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