Dormant for months, the Pilot Flying J investigation has revved up again, in a significant way.
Via WBIR.com, a federal grand jury indicted eight former and current employees of the truck-stop conglomerate on Tuesday, including former president Mark Hazelwood.
Hazelwood, who faces three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of witness tampering, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The eight defendants were informed through their lawyers on Friday to expect the indictments.
For CEO (and Browns owner) Jimmy Haslam, who has not yet been indicted, the key question is whether Hazelwood at some point will change that not guilty plea to guilty, along with an agreement to testify against Haslam.
Hazelwood reported directly to Haslam, and two of the other defendants (V.P. of national accounts Scott Wombold and V.P. of sales Jon Freeman) reported directly to Haslam, based on an organizational chart posted on the WBIR.com Twitter page.
The scandal relates to the manipulation of a rebate program to prey upon unsophisticated customers. In 2014, the company itself struck a deal to avoid prosecution by agreeing to pay a monetary penalty of more than $92 million. The agreement regarding Pilot Flying J was negotiated by attorney Aubrey Harwell. Because he also represents Haslam personally, many has presumed that Haslam is as a practical matter immune from prosecution, even if technically no individuals are exempt.
Hazelwood clearly isn’t exempt, and if he’s in position to give up the kind of evidence that draws the man at the top of the pyramid into the cross hairs, the NFL could have to revisit the position that Haslam committed no violation of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Otherwise, it would be conspicuous if Haslam is still permitted to attend the Scouting Combine or other league events, given the NFL’s new position on incoming players with criminal records.