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Unsealed recordings capture corporate discussion to portray Papa John's founder as 'racist'

Recording demonstrates "clear and intentional conspiracy" against founder John Schnatter, his attorney says.

Updated: March 31, 2021 - 8:08am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Newly unsealed recordings of a phone call between Papa John's executives and consultants in 2018 capture discussions of ensnaring John Schnatter, the iconic pizza company's founder, in a discussion that might portray him as being "racist."

"I hope he gets fu***ng  sent out to the pasture on this sh*t," a voice is heard saying about Schnatter on the recordings released Tuesday night in litigation between the Papa John's founder and one of his former vendors.

Schnatter left Papa John's in 2018 amid controversy over his use of a racial slur during a conference call. The call was meant to be a training session to help Schnatter avoid controversial remarks in public. 

The year before, Schnatter had criticized the NFL for failing to address what he said was the "debacle" of the then-ongoing National Anthem protests, remarks which had led to his stepping down as the CEO of the company. 

In the newly unsealed 2018 call with public relations firm Laundry Service, Schnatter discussed efforts to manage his public image as a major representative of the company. At one point near the end of the call, he complained about what he said was a double standard afforded to another fast food magnate, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. 

"What bothers me," Schnatter said during the call, "is Colonel Sanders called blacks 'niggers.' I'm like, I've never used that word ... Yet we use the word debacle and we get framed in the same genre. It's crazy. The whole thing's crazy."

Media reports of Schnatter's remarks led to intense backlash, with the businessman eventually resigning as the chairman of the company's board of directors, ending his leadership roles in the corporation after more than three decades.

A recently unsealed court filing revealed that Schnatter is suing Laundry Service and its parent company, Wasserman Media Group, over what Schnatter claimed was a "secret plot" to oust him from the company.

Now, the newly revealed audio from the 2018 call —previously sealed but released by mutual agreement from both parties in the lawsuit — indicates multiple individuals on the call talked about putting Schnatter in a compromising position following his remarks. 

Schnatter departed the call shortly after his Sanders comment.

According to the audio and transcript of the call, after Schnatter drops off, one individual can be heard claiming: "I hope he gets fu***ng sent out to the pasture on this sh*t." I really, really fu***ng do."

Schnatter's team alleged in a press release that Laundry Service's then-CEO Jason Stein was the individual speaking in that case.

"[T]hat's already all been revealed to me," the speaker adds. "That's why I just want him to go out and talk."

Neither Laundry Service nor Jason Stein via his company SC. Holdings immediately responded to queries on Tuesday afternoon. 

Multiple individuals on the call can be heard saying: "He's a racist." One is then heard apparently expressing a desire to get Schnatter into an interview in which he will compromise himself in public. 

"I just want him to go and speak the truth, and I want him — write down the bullet points, and then go fu***ng — just have to make sure it's an hour-long conversation, so that he says sh*t like he said here," the individual said. "It's gonna come out. He can't control it."

Another unidentified participant remarks: "I want the person interviewing him to know even though he knows to not say those specific answers, I want that sh*t to come out too."

At one point one speaker appears to suggest that he has arranged for Schnatter to have an interview with an ESPN analyst. "I already spoke to Darren Rovell who said he gets it," the speaker says, adding: "I told Darren by the end of it, it needs to be viral. He said 'no problem.'"

That call took place in late May; news networks began reporting on it in July of that year, after which Schnatter stepped down from the board. 

In his press release, Schnatter's attorney Dennis Murrell called the contents of the conference call "absolutely astonishing."

"Rarely in my career have I heard anything like it," Murrell said. "The comments made by Laundry Service executives on the recording, in addition to betraying a shockingly unprofessional level of personal bias, indicate a clear and intentional conspiracy to damage John's reputation and we believe demonstrates clearly that Laundry Service violated their contractual obligations."

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