Who’s Cheating America: Lonesome Highway Edition

Ah, the joys of interstate travel! Europe may have trains, but we Americans have the I-system. The open road! Freedom! Purple mountains! Amber waves!

And for those of us who love the wide-open feeling of hitting the road, there are all the little wayside restaurants and truck stops and lonely old gas stations. Selling Cokes and coffee and all that good road food.

Okay, some are disgusting. Some have bathrooms that feel almost sub-human. But the clean, well-run places – like the Flying J Travel Centers – are welcome oases.

I love the Flying J! Second only to Sheetz on my list of welcome sights at the bottom of Interstate offramps.

It turns out that the Flying J Travel Centers are run by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. We’ve had some issues with NFL owners in the past, as well as the NFL itself… but here’s a good story. The Flying J! Clean, well-lighted joints where Americans need them most! Thank you, Jimmy Haslam!

Except for one problem… America is being cheated. And the Flying J is at the heart of it

Three former employees of Pilot Flying J Travel Centers LLC, the truck stop operator run by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, pled guilty Monday for their roles in an alleged long-running scheme to bilk customers out of agreed-upon discounts on diesel fuel.

Agreed-upon discounts? Well, maybe it was a misunderstanding. Can’t this just be a difference of opinion? A few truckers who thought they were getting a better deal than they should have been?

The defendants join seven other former Pilot Flying J employees who have pled guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to boost profits and increase sales commissions while denying customers the diesel fuel rebates that Pilot had used to reel them in.

One of the largest trucker diesel suppliers in the U.S., Pilot has offered rebates and discount programs in order to encourage loyalty among its customers. But these programs were complex, and the discounts offered by the company varied among its numerous truck stops, making it incredibly difficult for customers to know whether they were getting their agreed-upon discounts, according to court documents.

Well… okay, this sounds a little different. But isn’t this just buyer beware? It was complex and difficult – but maybe that’s because it’s a complex and difficult program. That doesn’t mean there was any systemic attempt to defraud!

Mosher, a former regional sales director, admitted in his plea agreement to training other company employees on how to withhold discounts from customers by lowering the off-invoice discounts from those who were unlikely to notice price changes.

Training employees how to withhold discounts for those unlikely to notice price changes? What is this, a cable company? Flying J! Please tell me you only did this a couple of times…

These deceptive practices caused Pilot customers to lose at least $7 million, according to court documents.

Okay, seven million. Is that it?

Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot has already taken steps to compensate some of the affected customers in the wake of the scandal. A judge in November approved Pilot’s $85 million settlement with a class of 4,500 customers in an Arkansas federal court lawsuit over the fuel rebates.

Eighty-five million dollars? That’s a lot of discounts! Where was Jimmy?

Federal agents raided the company’s Knoxville headquarters last year, and an FBI affidavit unsealed in April alleged that both Haslam and Pilot President Mark Hazelwood knew that sales staff were withholding rebates from some of the company’s less-sophisticated customers. Haslam has disputed those allegations since the company’s offices were raided by federal agents in April, and says the company is cooperating with the investigation.

Okay. So he might not have been cheating America. His company was. But maybe he wasn’t.

We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

For now.

Previous entries in our Who’s Cheating America? series:

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