Today Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison for falsifying documents that led to the crash of a helicopter in 2008 that killed 9 people.
In sentencing Mr. Methey, Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, said he violated every oath he ever took when he filed documents to win a $51 million U.S. Forest Service contract.
He was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.
Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.
Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.
Aiken dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.
The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.
The sentencing hearing for Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, occurred later the same day. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.
The sentencing report on Mr. Metheny prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s office recommended 188 months (15 years and 8 months) of prison time. Below are excerpts from the report, which was dated March 20, 2015:
I. FOREST SERVICE WEIGHING OF HELICOPTERS
As a result of the crash of N612AZ, the FS conducted a contract compliance inspection on Carson’s helicopters, eventually bringing about the weighing of each helicopter. Prior to the FS weighing, some of the aircraft were weighed by Carson in Grants Pass. They were found to weigh more than indicated by their W&B documents with one pilot characterizing the overage as considerable..
1. Concealing the Fraud
Metheny and Phillips devised various schemes in an attempt to prevent the FS from discovering the aircraft’s true weights. Metheny talked to Phillips about removing equipment from the helicopter (e.g., auxiliary battery, bifilar weights, and heater) to reduce the aircraft’s weight without recording its removal on the helicopter’s Chart C as well as removing the inner components from the battery and putting the battery’s empty shell back in the aircraft.
Metheny directed Phillips to inform the FS inspector coming to weigh N7011M that Carson’s scales had a problem and could not be used, even though there was no problem with the scale at that time. This caused the inspector to leave without being able to weigh the helicopter. Metheny also instructed Phillips to ask one of the helicopter’s crew chiefs to remove the helicopter’s bifilar weights; however, the crew chief refused, explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight. Later, they discussed the possibility of manipulating the aircrafts fuel gauges making it appear the aircraft was loaded with more fuel than it really was, thereby making the aircraft appear lighter when weighed.
Metheny had another Carson employee instruct one of N103WF’s pilots to remove the bifilar weights before the FS weighing; however, the pilot refused.
Phillips also had discussions with Carson mechanics about removing bifilar weights, a battery, and a fuel cell from N61NH before the helicopter’s FS weighing.
2. Helicopter Weighing
The FS weighed N61NH and N7011M. The weighing revealed that N61NH was 432 lbs. over the bid weight and N7011M was 451 lbs. over the bid weight. Both aircraft were subsequently flown to Carson’s facility in Grants Pass where they were again weighed using the company’s own set of scales and confirmed the accuracy of the FS weighing. The FS weighing of the other helicopters revealed that they all ranged from 113 to 710 lbs. heavier than the bid weights submitted in Metheny’s contract proposals.
The bid weight for N612AZ including the equipment to carry passengers was 12,342 lbs. The NTSB investigation concluded the equipped weight of N612AZ on August 5, 2008 was actually 13,845 lbs. while the falsified weight that the N612AZ pilots used in calculating their allowable payload was 12,408 lbs. The difference between the weight of N612AZ as determined by NTSB and the bid weight was 1,503 lbs., and 1,437 lbs. over the aircraft weight used by the pilots in calculating their allowable payload.
J. TERMINATION OF THE CONTRACTS
The FS terminated the LFS and IA Contracts with Carson in their entirety. It concluded that all of its helicopters under contract violated FAA regulations by using a falsified performance chart in its operations.
The falsified performance chart was made available to flight crews for calculation of performance capability while conducting flight operations. Use of the chart would directly impact the final calculation of allowable weight the helicopter would be capable of safely carrying. Moreover, Carson failed to submit accurate weight data during the performance of the contract. Incorrect data compromises the allowable payloads, which in turn affects flight safety for contract and agency personnel both in the air and on the ground. The allowable payload determines how much a weight the aircraft can carry for the current environmental conditions, and if it is incorrect, safety is compromised.
From page 31:
When N61NH pilots had problems meeting the necessary payload for carrying passengers, the FS believed a smaller Bell helicopter could carry as many passengers as N61NH while costing them half as much. But when the pilots received the falsified power available performance chart for load calculations, it provided more power indicating they could carry a higher payload. (Attachment #3 p16; Attachment #5 p6-7). Likewise, pilots assigned to other aircraft experienced the same problem in meeting the required payload when a different and less costly type of helicopter was able to carry the same payload. But when they received the falsified performance charts it significantly increased their available payload. (Attachment #5 p6). Moreover, pilots of N103WF and N410GH reported that they were never able to carry the payload indicated by their load calculations—such as, load calculations indicating a capability of carrying 600 gallons of water while only being able to carry 400 gallons. Other pilots even underreported the amount of fuel and cargo in load calculations thereby making the payload appear higher, as well as over-reporting the number of gallons of water dropped on a fire, thereby avoiding questions from the FS. (Attachment #5 p7-8). Based on this information, it is obvious that Carson was paid more than the fair market value for the services they actually rendered.
From page 39:
In this case, a 188-month term of imprisonment for defendant Steven Metheny is appropriate and reasonable considering the applicable guideline range and based on the factors outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)–that is, the sentence contemplate the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant, reflects the seriousness of the offense, promotes respect for the law, provides just punishment for the offense, affords adequate deterrence to criminal conduct, and protects the public from further crimes of the defendant.
Meanwhile, if Metheny’s $170,000 yearly salary and bonuses were not enough, he was stealing continuously from Carson. He used Carson funds to buy jewelry and other personal items for himself and his wife and to renovate their residence and sold Carson helicopter parts and equipment and diverted the proceeds for his own use. Moreover, he stole tail rotor blades from a shipment at Carson’s facility then attempted again to place suspicion on the same person he had animosity toward revealing his self-centered and vindictive nature.
Not only is the recommended 188-month sentence for the offense within the applicable guideline range, though high it may be, it is certainly not extreme and is well warranted in light of the facts of this case. This sentence is particularly justified when considering the magnitude of the fraudulent conduct and intended loss, the effort and manner used to conceal it, the indifference to the safety of those performing helicopter firefighting operations, impeding the NTSB investigation into the cause of the helicopter crash and the large number of people he actually put in danger. Accordingly, this sentence reflects the gravity and seriousness of theoffense, promotes respect for the law, and provides just punishment. It will not only deter the defendant from engaging in future criminal conduct, but will likely deter similarly situated individuals from engaging in this type of illegal activity.
Further, pursuant to the plea agreement in this case, the government will move for the dismissal of the remaining counts as applied to and against Metheny, Counts 2 through 7 and Counts 9 through 23.
Dated this 20th day of March, 2015.