Francis Vieira jailed for six months in US charter jet case

Guyanese Francis Vieira, a pilot of the now-defunct luxury charter company Platinum Jet Management, was on Monday sentenced to six months in prison for his role in a conspiracy to defraud charter customers and brokers using interstate wires and to impede and obstruct the FAA, a release from the Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey has said.

Vieira, 61, of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, previously pleaded guilty to the lead count of a Superseding Indictment, charging him with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and to defraud the United States. He entered his guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh, who also imposed the sentence in Newark federal court.

According to the, on Monday Vieira dressed in a black sports jacket and khakis stood before the judge with tears in his eyes. He told the court he deeply regretted his actions and implored Cavanaugh to consider the financial and emotional burden his family has endured during the two years it has taken for his case to reach a conclusion. Vieira said the experience has been worse than his recent bout with cancer.

“Have mercy on me,” Vieira pleaded. “Have mercy on my family,” the report quoted him as saying.

But the judge, who admitted several times that he has struggled with the case, said incarceration was appropriate. There was a need to deter other pilots from committing similar acts, he said.

“Protection of the public is paramount,” the judge said.

Members of Vieira’s family, who sat in a row behind Vieira, wept as Cavanaugh handed down his sentence. The judge said Vieira should serve time close to home and that he will have at least 60 days before reporting to prison.

Scott McBride, an assistant U.S. Attorney, failed to persuade Cavanaugh to order Vieira to pay US$4.4 million in restitution to passengers on flights for which Vieira had altered records.

If Vieira successfully completes three years of supervised release following house arrest, he will be allowed to fly again, the judge said.

Vieira was among several Guyanese who were charged in connection with the case following an accident and Platinum’s former president, Michael Brassington Jr, was found guilty in November of endangering the safety of an aircraft in flight. Prosecutors said the company’s jets were regularly over-fueled at airports where fuel was cheaper, making them dangerously overweight. Brassington’s younger brother Paul, a company executive, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The Brassingtons along with another accused, Andre Budhan, are scheduled to be sentenced on November 20.

A third executive, Joseph Singh, was sentenced on Aug. 16 to probation and ordered to pay US$200,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to a fraud charge. Singh admitted that an unqualified pilot was flying the jet.

According to documents filed in Vieira’s case In January 2003 he started flying as a contract pilot with Platinum Jet. He continued flying for Platinum Jet until February 2005, the month that one of the company’s jets crashed after failing to lift upon takeoff at Teterboro Airport.

From November 2002 through November 2003, Platinum Jet did not have an FAA-issued certificate, otherwise known as a “Part 135 certificate,” permitting it to fly commercial charter flights. Despite not having the appropriate certificate, Vieira and his co-conspirators agreed to operate Platinum Jet as a commercial jet charter company and flew several dozen illegal charter flights.

On November 17, 2003, Platinum Jet entered a certificate sharing agreement that allowed the company to operate commercial charter flights under the Part 135 certificate of Darby Aviation in Muscle Shoals, Ala. As a Part 135 operation, Platinum Jet was required to create a load manifest, also known as a “flight log,” which recorded vital flight information for each charter flight. From November 2003 through February 2005, Vieira and his co-conspirators falsified their flight logs by indicating that certain flights were private flights instead of chartered flights. They did so to conceal certain Part 135 violations, such as pilot qualifications and rest requirements.

In connection with Part 135’s load manifest requirement, Vieira was required to prepare a flight weight-and-balance (W&B) graph calculating the weight and centre of gravity (COG) for Platinum Jet’s aircraft prior to takeoff. On more than two dozen occasions, the release from the attorney’s office said, Vieira altered the W&B graphs for the jet that crashed at Teterboro by changing the weight and COG printed on those graphs. Vieira and his co-conspirators altered W&B graphs in order to conceal a fuel tankering scheme, whereby pilots would top off the aircraft’s fuel tanks with discounted fuel in order to save money, causing aircraft to exceed the maximum forward COG limits. Vieira and other Platinum Jet pilots employed this fraudulent technique on at least two of the company’s airplanes

As a result, pilots flew over-fueled aircraft outside the centre of gravity, contrary to FAA regulations.

The pilots, including Vieira, flew athletes and other celebrities, including Keith Richards, Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Beyonce Knowles, Burt Reynolds, Sean “P Diddy” Combs, and Jon Bon Jovi.

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