Jury gets case of Fla.-based charter jet co. execs

By DAVID PORTER, Associated Press

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

(11-09) 13:33 PST Newark, N.J. (AP) —

A federal jury began weighing the fate of two former charter jet executives Tuesday after defense attorneys portrayed their clients as the victims of bad legal advice, not schemers who jeopardized passengers’ safety in the name of profit.

“This case can be called a prosecution in search of a crime,” attorney Michael Salnick said in a 2 1/2-hour closing argument on behalf of Platinum Jet Management co-founder Michael Brassington.

A charter jet operated by Platinum crashed on takeoff at northern New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport in February 2005, leading to an investigation that culminated in the indictment of seven people connected to the company. The crash also prompted the FAA to review its guidelines for charter companies.

Brassington and his brother Paul, also a co-founder, are charged with lying to authorities and with fraud conspiracy for allegedly running the charter flights without the proper certification and violating safety rules. Michael Brassington also faces one count of endangering an aircraft for allegedly lying about planes’ weights to hide the fact that Platinum was overloading them with cheap fuel.

Three former Platinum employees have pleaded guilty, and two who testified at the trial were attacked by Salnick.

Platinum co-founder Andre Budhan “fumbled through twisted story after twisted story with one goal in mind: to keep himself out of jail,” Salnick told jurors. Likewise, charter director Joseph Singh admitted changing his story after cutting a deal with the government, Salnick said.

The attorney conceded that the company made mistakes when it flew commercial charters without the proper credentialing, but blamed that on advice given by Michael Moulis, an aviation attorney who said he told company officials they would be OK if they took bookings from a limited number of charter brokers.

In his rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott McBride dismissed the explanation as nonsensical.

“It’s ridiculous that a lawyer with 20 years’ experience would give advice that any eighth-grader would disbelieve,” he said.

Besides, McBride added, if bad advice was a valid defense, why didn’t Budhan employ it instead of pleading guilty to conspiracy?

The Brassingtons, natives of Guyana, headed Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Platinum from 2002 to 2005. The company’s client list included numerous celebrities such as Luciano Pavarotti, Duran Duran, Keith Richards, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. They paid as much as $85,000 per flight.

It emerged during the trial that Jay-Z and then-girlfriend Beyonce flew from Las Vegas to Teterboro on Feb. 1, 2005, on the same Bombardier Challenger jet that crashed the next day en route to Chicago.

The plane failed to take off and tore across a busy intersection and into the side of a clothing warehouse, starting a fire. All 11 people in the plane were injured as were several more on the ground. The government estimated damages at $30 million to $40 million.

Federal transportation investigators blamed the accident on the plane’s center of gravity being too far forward — the result of overfueling masked by Michael Brassington’s earlier lies about the plane’s weight, prosecutors contended. But co-pilot Carlos Salaverria testified Michael Brassington “had nothing to do with” the flight that crashed, Salnick told jurors.

The defense offered witnesses who said the crash more likely was caused by a malfunction with the plane’s steering mechanism, which Salaverria and pilot John Kimberling both said froze during the takeoff roll.

McBride concluded his rebuttal by reminding jurors that they didn’t have to find that Michael Brassington’s actions caused the crash to find him guilty of the endangerment charge, but merely had to believe that his alleged misstatement about the plane’s weight several months earlier jeopardized the safety of any passengers who subsequently flew on it.

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