The former president of Pilot Co., the largest fuel retailer in the nation, is seeking to have the Black judge presiding over the fraud case against him recused.
Mark Hazelwood claimed in court documents filed on May 14 that U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier showed bias against him at the initial trial after hearing a recording of him making racist remarks. Hazelwood and his attorneys have filed a motion asking Collier to recuse himself and not oversee the second trial, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
“I deserve to have a judge who has not already judged me, clearly believing I am a ‘typical’ white-collar defendant and a racist one at that,” Hazelwood wrote. “I deserve a judge who will protect my rights.”
Hazelwood was convicted in February 2018 of conspiring with a sales team at the company to cheat trucking companies out of millions of dollars. He was also convicted of trying to intimidate his secretary so she wouldn’t testify against him.
According to prosecutors, Hazelwood was involved in a five-year plot to short trucking firms of promised diesel fuel discounts. Fourteen former Pilot staffers in the sales division have pleaded guilty in the fraud plot and have implicated Hazelwood in testimony as being a part of the deals.
In a split decision, a federal appeals court vacated the decision last year after finding that the jury should not have been allowed to hear the recording of Hazelwood making racist remarks during a work retreat of Pilot executives. However, the court did not recommend that Collier be replaced for the second trial. The court found that Collier was mistaken in allowing the jury to hear the recording, but not biased.
In the recording, “Hazelwood can be heard saying that “n-ggers” bought a lot of Raiders apparel. He also asked, “Where’s that greasy n-ggers song?” later in the night, before an offensive song had been played aloud. Hazelwood later expressed surprise over the fact that one of his coworkers had been “married to a n-gger” because “you can’t trust those little n-gger b-tches.”
Hazelwood later apologized for using racial slurs and profanity while critiquing his board of directors and his boss’s football team and fans.
In court filings, Hazelwood’s attorney alleged that Collier isn’t just biased against the executive in particular, but that the judge is generally prejudiced against white-collar defendants.
“A reasonable person could conclude from (Collier’s past) statements that (Collier) assigns more moral blame to white-collar defendants than, for example, drug dealers,” the motion stated.
Pilot is the 10th largest private company in the U.S. according to Forbes, with an annual revenue of $29.5 billion.
The decision about whether Collier is too biased to preside over Hazelwood’s second trial will be left up to the judge himself.
Hazelwood and his attorneys are also asking that the trial be moved out of east Tennessee, alleging the jury pool is too tainted as a result of media coverage.
“The high-decibel press coverage from the east Tennessee media has poisoned the jury pool to the point that a fair trial in east Tennessee is impossible,” court filings said. They’ve requested that the trial be moved to federal courts in Arkansas, Missouri or North Carolina.
Two other defendants convicted alongside Hazelwood are also requesting a new judge and a new trial. Hazelwood’s retrial is expected to begin on Feb. 1, 2022.