NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – A charter jet company executive lied about the weights of his planes, a dangerous practice that culminated in a fiery crash that injured 20 people and caused millions of dollars in damage, a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday in the man’s fraud and conspiracy trial.
Platinum Jet Management co-founder Michael Brassington “put money above safety,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Fortier Imbert said in his closing argument. “His lying and false statements put passengers at risk.”
Brassington and his brother, Paul, face charges of fraud conspiracy and lying to authorities. They founded Platinum in 2002, and an investigation after the 2005 crash at Teterboro Airport led to an indictment of the brothers and five others last year. Three people have pleaded guilty and a judge dropped charges against a fourth last week. Another defendant is awaiting trial.
The defunct Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company’s clients once included celebrities such as Keith Richards, Duran Duran, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Celine Dion and Jon Bon Jovi.
Imbert mentioned Richards in his summation Monday, recounting a flight the Rolling Stones guitarist took in which a Platinum pilot was so unfamiliar with the aircraft he’d been assigned to fly that he “didn’t even know how to open the door.”
The government says the Brassingtons ran commercial charters without the proper certification and, after they partnered with another certified company, continued to violate safety rules governing pilot qualifications and rest requirements.
Worse, Imbert charged, Michael Brassington deliberately understated the weights of his planes so his pilots could load up on cheap fuel at airports like Teterboro.
While some pilots testified they were aware of the practice and could make mental adjustments for takeoffs, Imbert told jurors, the first officer on the flight that crashed, Carlos Salaverria, was not.
“They could take steps for self-preservation,” Imbert said. “But that was an advantage Carlos Salaverria didn’t have. Michael Brassington decided it was best for Michael Brassington to keep Carlos Salaverria completely in the dark.”
The Bombardier Challenger with 11 people aboard failed to take off on the morning of Feb. 2, 2005, hit two cars at a busy intersection and smashed into a clothing warehouse, causing a fire. Prosecutors have estimated damages at $30 million to $40 million. The crash prompted a nationwide review of charter company regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The official report by the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the crash to the plane’s center of gravity being too far forward – the result of the over-fueling, prosecutors have argued. A defense expert testified during the trial, however, that the crash more likely was caused by the plane’s steering mechanism failing.
Defense attorneys were to make their closing argument Monday afternoon.
The three-week trial took an unexpected turn last Friday when U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh dismissed charges against a third defendant, maintenance chief Brien McKenzie, ruling that the government had failed to prove its case.