Prosecutor: Jet Company Compromised Safety for Greed

October 18, 2010

A client list that included celebrities such as Jay-Z, Diddy and Bon Jovi wasn’t enough for a charter jet company that routinely cut corners on safety to maximize its profits, a practice that culminated in a fiery 2005 crash at Teterboro Airport, a federal prosecutor charged Thursday.

Platinum Jet Management, a now-defunct company once based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., flouted federal aviation rules governing charter companies “because they were greedy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott McBride told jurors during opening statements in the fraud and conspiracy trial of three company officials.

Platinum operated a charter jet that crashed on takeoff at Teterboro on Feb. 2, 2005. An investigation later revealed that the plane’s center of gravity was too far forward, the result of excessive fuel loading.

The government alleges Platinum lied about its planes’ weights in order to stock up on fuel at airports where they could get a cheaper price, like Teterboro.

“They played a shockingly reckless game of Russian roulette on the runway, with oblivious passengers acting as test dummies,” McBride said.

The Bombardier Challenger CL-600 crashed through a fence at the end of a runway, clipped two cars stopped at a red light and smashed into a warehouse, causing a fire. Twenty people were injured, four seriously.

According to defense attorney Michael Salnick, representing Platinum co-founder Michael Brassington, Jay-Z and then-girlfriend Beyonce flew from Las Vegas to Teterboro on Feb. 1, 2005, on the same plane that crashed the following day.

Last year, seven people connected to the company were indicted on charges they lied to investigators and falsified documents to hide the fact that they weren’t properly certified to fly commercial charters and were using unqualified pilots. They also were charged in connection with the alleged fuel scheme, called tankering.

According to court papers, some clients and brokers paid Platinum as much as $90,000 per charter. Among the company’s clients were Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, singer Celine Dion, Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, film producer Harvey Weinstein and late opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

On trial along with Brassington are brother and co-founder Paul Brassington and maintenance chief Brien McKenzie. They are charged with conspiracy and making false statements, and Michael Brassington is charged with endangering the safety of an aircraft, the most serious of the offenses with a 20-year maximum prison term. None is charged with causing the 2005 crash.

Three defendants have already pleaded guilty and are expected to testify for the prosecution. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Salnick told jurors Thursday that Michael Brassington’s actions throughout the alleged conspiracy were approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and that some of the defendants who’ve already pleaded guilty had changed their stories to shift the blame to him.

Paul Brassington was a computer expert, not familiar with the aviation industry, who “never filled out weight and balance graphs, never filled out a flight log and never ordered anyone to put fuel on a plane,” his attorney, Bruce Reinhart said in his opening statement.

Mark Berman, representing McKenzie, accused the government of playing to jurors’ fears by highlighting the 2005 crash and said Platinum’s pilots were responsible for reporting planes’ center of gravity and weight and balance information, not his client.

The Brassingtons, natives of Guyana, started Platinum in Florida in 2002 with Andre Budhan, who was indicted and pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and obstruction and faces a sentence up to 57 months.

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