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Pilot Travel Centers to pay $92M penalty in fraud case

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(Pilot Travel Centers L.L.C. photo)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (July 15, 2014) — Pilot Travel Centers L.L.C., which operates Pilot Flying J truck stops, has agreed to pay a $92 million penalty and restitution for deceptively withholding diesel fuel price discounts from hundreds of customers.

According to an agreement with U.S. Attorney William C. Killian of the Eastern District of Tennessee, Pilot has accepted legal responsibility for the criminal conduct of its employees, which caused more than $56 million in losses to its customers, and agreed to pay full restitution to every victim of the fraud.

Pilot further acknowledged the gravity of its employees’ criminal wrongdoing by agreeing to pay the government a $92 million monetary penalty—an amount within the range of fines recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.


(Tire Business file photo)
Jimmy Haslam

Pilot’s chairman and CEO is James A. Haslam, who also is majority owner of the NFL team the Cleveland Browns. At this point in the government’s investigation of the truck stop chain, he has not been indicted or accused of any wrongdoing, and has claimed in published reports that he had no knowledge of his company’s deceptive practices.

The agreement leaves open the possibility of prosecution of any individual, according to the U.S. attorney’s office, and imposes a continuing obligation on Pilot to provide complete cooperation with the ongoing federal investigation of current and former Pilot employees relating to fraudulent conduct involving the sale of diesel fuel.

Pilot must periodically report on what it has done to ensure that a system of internal accounting controls and other compliance procedures have been established to prevent fraudulent conduct from occurring again in the sale of diesel fuel, the prosecutor said. In the event Pilot materially breaches its obligations under the agreement, the company has agreed that the government may file the criminal information, attached to the agreement, and will not contest the allegations in that charging document.

“The terms of this agreement, including the significant monetary penalty and the very serious consequences if Pilot fails to comply, demonstrate quite clearly that no corporation, no matter how big, influential, or wealthy, is above the law,” Mr. Killian said. “In addition, the company’s agreement to fully cooperate with the United States, including its obligation to identify its employees’ criminal conduct, will assist the ongoing federal investigation.

“The agreement ensures that Pilot’s extensive remediation efforts will continue until all trucking company victims have received full restitution and until Pilot has demonstrated to the United States that it has implemented sufficient internal controls to prevent this kind of fraudulent conduct from ever occurring again.”

The settlement came after a joint investigation by the FBI and the IRS-Criminal Investigation into allegations of fraudulent conduct at Pilot. On April 15, 2013, search warrants were executed at multiple locations, including Pilot’s headquarters in Knoxville.

Since that time, 10 Pilot employees, including those with supervisory responsibilities, agreed to cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation and entered guilty pleas to mail and wire fraud charges arising from their involvement in the fraudulent reduction of diesel fuel price discounts owed to Pilot customers, according to prosecutors.

In the agreement, Pilot confirmed that fraudulent conduct involving diesel fuel price discounts was prevalent within its direct sales group and carried out with the knowledge and participation of employees responsible for the operation and oversight of direct sales. Pilot further confirmed that supervisory employees encouraged participation in discount fraud for the company’s benefit.

Prosecutors cited one example during a November 19 and 20, 2012, annual sales training meeting at Pilot’s headquarters when a Pilot supervisor encouraged and taught direct sales employees how to deceptively reduce the rebates paid to some trucking fleet customers for the purpose of making targeted accounts more profitable for the company.

Pilot confirmed that the discount fraud was executed generally in one of two ways: either by fraudulently reducing the amount of monthly rebate amounts to targeted customers or by deceptively reducing the off-invoice discounts of targeted customers. The firm acknowledged that its employees emailed spreadsheets among each other that documented their fraudulent reductions, and that in some cases, its employees fabricated “back up” documentation sent to customers to justify fraudulently reduced rebate or discount amounts.

Additionally, Pilot confirmed that in February 2013 certain employees involved with direct sales expressed an intent to expand the scheme to defraud by having direct sales personnel identify and target Pilot’s off-invoice customers that were considered to be too unsophisticated to carefully monitor diesel pricing data in conjunction with their periodically received fuel invoices.

As set forth in the agreement with the government, certain Pilot employees involved with the operation and oversight of direct sales referred to this new aspect of the fraud as “cost plus B plan”—named after having two tiers of cost pricing for different types of customers: tier “A” and tier “B.”

Pilot further acknowledged that certain employees involved with the operation and oversight of direct sales did not plan to inform the targeted unsophisticated customers of their placement in the higher-priced tier, and these employees occasionally referred to these targeted customers as “Customer Bs.”

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