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Former Pilot president wants Black judge replaced for 2nd trial

Former Pilot president wants Black judge replaced for 2nd trial
In this Feb. 9, 2016, photo, former Pilot Flying J president Mark Hazelwood, left, leaves federal court after being arraigned in Knoxville, Tenn. Hazelwood, the former president of Pilot Co., wants a Black federal judge to recuse himself from overseeing the retrial of a fraud case against him. Hazelwood claims the judge appeared biased against him after hearing a recording of him making racist remarks at the first trial. (Michael Patrick /Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The white former president of Pilot Co., the nation’s largest fuel retailer, wants a Black federal judge to recuse himself from overseeing the retrial of a fraud case against him.

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In court filings last week, Mark Hazelwood claimed the judge appeared biased against him after hearing a recording of Hazelwood making racist remarks at the first trial, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

Hazelwood was convicted in February 2018 of conspiring with the sales team he supervised to cheat trucking companies out of millions of dollars and trying to intimidate his secretary so she wouldn’t testify against him.

A federal appeals court, in a split decision, vacated Hazelwood’s conviction last October, finding that the judge should not have allowed the jury to hear a recording of Hazelwood making racist remarks during a work retreat for Pilot executives. The appeals court said it would not be necessary to assign a different judge.

Hazelwood and his attorneys filed a motion last week asking U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier to recuse himself anyway and not oversee the second trial.

“A reasonable observer would question whether the court’s exposure to the recordings caused it to harbor at least an implicit bias against Mr. Hazelwood,” his attorneys wrote. “At every stage after being exposed to the recordings, the court’s rulings gave the appearance it was taking on the role of advocate, the antithesis of impartiality.”

The jury heard secret recordings of Hazelwood using racial slurs and profanely criticizing his board of directors and his boss’s football team and fans. Hazelwood later apologized for his language.

Hazelwood’s attorneys also accuse Collier of bias against white-collar criminals in general and suggest that he should step down even if he is not biased in order to avoid the appearance of bias.

Pilot is the 10th largest private company in the U.S., according to Forbes, with more than 26,000 employees and revenue of about $29.5 billion per year.

The company is controlled by the family of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The Haslams have not been charged with any wrongdoing. The former governor has not been involved with the company in recent years.

Hazelwood’s court filings suggest that his attorneys will try to drag the Haslam family into the case at the new trial.

“We note that, for various reasons, the retrial will focus much more on members of the Haslam family than in the original trial,” one filing reads. It cites social functions that were attended by both Collier and Bill Haslam and asks the judge to “consider whether any relationship or connection between the court and Gov. Haslam merits recusal.”

Fourteen former Pilot Flying J employees pleaded guilty in the scheme, and the company earlier agreed to pay an $85 million settlement to defrauded customers and a $92 million penalty to the government.

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