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Brothers convicted in NJ charter jet crash trial

November 16, 2010 2:32:27 PM PST
An investigation born of a fiery plane crash at a small New Jersey airport nearly six years ago culminated Monday in convictions for two brothers accused of skirting safety regulations as they ran a charter jet company that catered to the rich and famous.

A federal jury took nearly four days of deliberations to convict Michael and Paul Brassington of fraud conspiracy in their operation of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Platinum Jet Management between 2002 and 2005. Paul Brassington faces up to five years in prison, while his brother could get 20 or more.

The Brassingtons, natives of Guyana, founded Platinum in 2002 and eventually boasted a client list that included Luciano Pavarotti, Duran Duran, Keith Richards, Snoop Dogg, film producer Harvey Weinstein and Jay-Z. Some 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 Bombardier Challenger jet that crashed the next day en route to Chicago.

During the monthlong trial, prosecutors painted a picture of a company that routinely violated Federal Aviation Administration rules by, among other things, running commercial charter flights without the proper certification.

Even after Platinum legally partnered with an Alabama company, Darby Aviation, that had the proper certification, it used pilots who weren't qualified for commercial flights and falsified documents to cover its tracks, prosecutors said.

"The defendants chose to commit crimes in the pursuit of profits over public safety," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Monday. "A pattern of fraud and deception is not a business plan.

Today's verdict confirms that there are consequences when you break the law to boost your bottom line."

The Teterboro accident in February 2005 was the culmination of Platinum's deceitful practices, the government alleged, because Michael Brassington deliberately understated his planes' weights in a scheme to save money by loading up on cheap fuel at airports like Teterboro.

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.

A federal report 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, prosecutors contended.

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

Defense attorneys sought to portray the Brassingtons as the victims of bad legal advice through the testimony of an attorney who said he advised them they could fly charters without a commercial certificate if they used fewer than six charter brokers.

Bruce Reinhart, attorney for Paul Brassington, declined to comment Monday. Michael Salnick, representing Michael Brassington, didn't return a message seeking comment.

Besides the conspiracy count, Michael Brassington also was convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft and on seven counts of making false statements. He was acquitted of 12 other false statement counts, and Paul Brassington was acquitted of four.

Sentencing was set for March 7. The endangerment count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence, and the conspiracy and false statement counts carry five-year maximums, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Seven people connected to Platinum were indicted in 2009, and three have pleaded guilty. One, former maintenance chief Brien McKenzie, faced trial with the Brassingtons but had his case thrown out by U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh, who ruled before jury deliberations that the government hadn't proved its case.

The final defendant, Kimberling, had his case severed and is awaiting trial in Florida.

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