U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier issued an order to federal prosecutors Tuesday to “make a list of convicted Pilot Flying J fraudsters and put the guiltiest at the top,” Knoxville News Sentinel reported, as 17 former executives and staffers begin the sentencing phase of their trials after being found guilty in their roles in a massive rebate scam aimed at fleecing truckers who participated in the ill-fated program.
The order comes after a jury in the U.S. District Court in Chattanooga found former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood and ex-staffer Heather Jones guilty of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Former vice president Scott “Scooter” Wombold was acquitted of participating substantially in the scheme, but for a single count of fraud. Account representative Karen Mann was found not guilty the charges filed against her.
Meanwhile, 14 other former executives and staffers plead guilty for their roles in the scam since the April 2013 raid of the Pilot Flying J headquarters in Knoxville.
Knox news reports:
Each of those 17, including Hazelwood, now must face Collier for sentencing hearings. The law requires that Collier assess each co-conspirator’s individual bad behavior and personal history.
Collier also must decide each co-conspirator’s role and how much of a prison break each should get if they cooperated with the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation Division.
Most white-collar conspiracies prosecuted in the Eastern District of Tennessee involve only a handful of criminals, so the Pilot Flying J fraud conspiracy is atypical. But drug conspiracy cases handled in the district often include dozens of defendants, varying from addicts to drug lords.
Judges in the Eastern District rarely order prosecutors to compile a ranking of co-conspirators. A co-conspirator’s role is considered when the U.S. Probation Office does the math on establishing a penalty range dictated by sentencing guidelines and detailed in a pre-sentence report.
Hazelwood, for instance, is facing a boost in his penalty range because, Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Hamilton said at a recent hearing, he was considered a “leader” in the plot to lure truckers into doing business with Pilot Flying J with discounts on diesel fuel and then shortchanging them.
But the sentencing guidelines also give weight to each co-conspirator’s criminal history. In drug conspiracy cases, that’s often varied and sometimes leads to heftier sentences against defendants further down the distribution chain. A drug co-conspirator with two prior drug-related felony convictions faces life, for instance, no matter his or her role.
Read more about the details of the case here.