PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Federal prosecutors announced fraud charges Monday against two helicopter company employees accused of lying about the performance capabilities of helicopters hired by the U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires, including one that crashed in 2008 in Northern California, killing nine.
The 25-page indictment from a federal grand jury in Medford, Ore., alleges that Steven Metheny, with help from Levi Phillips, submitted false information to win more than $20 million in contracts for seven helicopters.
Metheny, 42, the former vice president of West Coast Operations for Carson Helicopters Inc., and Phillips, 45, the director of maintenance, were charged with conspiracy to defraud the Forest Service. Metheny also faces charges of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service and endangering the safety of an aircraft.
Metheny did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Phillips does not have a listed phone number. No attorney is listed for Metheny or Phillips on the court docket
The men face a maximum of 20 years in prison, if convicted on the conspiracy charge. Metheny could potentially get decades more on the other charges.
The indictment states that when the Forest Service solicited bids for helicopters to be used in firefighting operations, Metheny submitted proposals with altered performance charts and falsified weight and balance charts. Then, after winning the contract, the incorrect information was given to pilots who had to calculate the maximum payload capacity during firefighting operations. When asked why the specifications were different than those on similar helicopters, the indictment says Matheny told the Forest Service the company had modified the engines to be more powerful.
"I'm glad they're stopped; what I'm not glad about is that my son died to make this become apparent," said Paul Steele of Ashland, Ore., whose 19-year-old son David Steele died in the crash.
"I think it falls a little short," he added. "If you were to drive a car recklessly and kill someone, you'd have a manslaughter charge. You endanger the safety of an aircraft — you knowingly did so, you recklessly did so and people died — and they're not facing manslaughter charges."
Through a spokeswoman, Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield declined comment beyond what's included in the indictment.
Carson Helicopters, which recently decided to close its Oregon facility and consolidate operations in Pennsylvania, said in a statement it has fully cooperated with the investigation.
"During the course of the investigation, Carson Helicopters learned information about the conduct of Steve Metheny, and the company terminated his employment in 2009," the statement said. The company said it suspended Phillips on Monday after learning he had been indicted.
The Aug. 5, 2008, crash near Weaverville, Calif., killed the pilot, a Forest Service safety inspector and seven firefighters with Grayback Forestry of Merlin, Ore. The co-pilot and three firefighters were hurt. Witnesses said the helicopter took off more slowly than normal before clipping trees and then crashing into a hillside.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation showed the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing during the Iron 44 wildfire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. If Forest Service guidelines had been followed, investigators said, the weight shouldn't have exceeded 15,840 pounds.
A Portland jury ruled last year that a problem with an engine was responsible for the crash. Jurors reached their verdict after the pilot who survived and the widow of the one who was killed sued General Electric for $177 million, alleging the company knew the engines it made for the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter had a design flaw.
"Yes, there may have been a part failure, but I would imagine it broke because it was overweight," Steele said Monday. "It was significantly overweight."
Associated Press writer Jeff Barnard contributed to this report from Grants Pass, Ore.
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