Beyond FAA Enforcement: Criminal Prosecution For Falsification Of Aircraft Maintenance Records
By Gregory J. Reigel
© February, 2012 All rights reserved.
In past articles, we've talked about FAA enforcement cases in which the FAA alleges that a mechanic has falsified maintenance records. You know from those discussions that revocation of all airman certificates (mechanic, pilot and medical) is the FAA's policy and standard response in such cases. In other words, if the FAA successfully proves its case then the mechanic's certificates are revoked and he or she has to wait for a minimum of a year before reapplying for any of the certificates. And, unfortunately, reapplying means the individual has to re-take both knowledge tests and practical tests.
But is revocation the worst consequence a mechanic can face in a falsification case? Sadly, it is not. Criminal prosecution, and its more severe consequences, is becoming more frequent. Falsification cases are being investigated by the FAA, FBI, and other local and federal law enforcement agencies and, where appropriate, cases are being referred to state and federal attorneys for prosecution. Several cases stand out and serve as examples of the serious trouble a mechanic can face in a criminal falsification case.
In one case reported by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General ("OIG"), an Alabama court sentenced an aircraft mechanic to 5 years probation and prohibited the mechanic from working in the aviation industry during that period of time. The sentence corresponded to the aircraft mechanic's plea of guilty to charges of providing false information regarding his licensing and certifications. The aircraft mechanic was originally indicted on three counts of possessing and using false aircraft maintenance certificates.
The OIG determined that the aircraft mechanic obtained employment as a contract sheet metal mechanic at a repair station by providing a false Designated Mechanic Examiner's certification. He also claimed that he had a valid Airframe and Power-Plant certificate with an Inspection Authorization license, even though these certificates/ratings had previously been revoked by the FAA. Unfortunately for the employer, it was required to re-inspect the repairs made by the aircraft mechanic to ensure that they were performed properly and did not pose a safety risk.
It is hard to imagine what the aircraft mechanic's excuse or defense was to the charge. And now the aircraft mechanic is stuck trying to find employment in another industry (not that he wasn't already effectively in that position with the certificate revocations). This case is a good example of why it is prudent for an employer to confirm an employee's certifications and qualifications prior to hire, rather than simply taking the employee on his or her word. In this situation, not only did the employer end up with bad press, it also incurred what was likely substantial expense in cooperating in the investigation and performing the re-inspections.
In another case, an Oklahoma aircraft mechanic was sentenced to 90 days house arrest, 5 years probation and fined $57,500.00 for his role in concealing and making false statements in connection with repairs to Lycoming engines using unapproved parts. When the FAA inspected the engines, some engine parts were not airworthy. The FAA had also issued notifications on suspected unapproved parts. This particular case was investigated by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service ("DCIS") (DCIS is the inspector general for the Department of Defense), FBI and the FAA.
The OIG also reported that a pilot in Virginia was recently convicted of falsifying aircraft maintenance records. The pilot was then sentenced to 30 days in jail followed by a 12-month period of supervised release. Apparently the pilot, or an aircraft sales and management company owned by the pilot, sold an aircraft to a buyer and represented to the buyer that the aircraft had received an annual inspection per FAR § 91.409.
However, when the aircraft was delivered it did not contain any logbook entries or records reflecting the completed annual inspection. The pilot then instructed his company's director of maintenance ("DOM") to create false maintenance record entries showing that the annual inspection was completed by one of the company's former mechanics. The pilot then delivered the fraudulent maintenance records to the buyer.
This case is interesting because the pilot wasn't the person who actually created the false maintenance records. Granted, he authorized the DOM to create the records and then passed them off as originals to the buyer. I suspect that the FAA probably revoked the DOM's airman certificates since his or her conduct violated FAR § 43.12. I would expect that the DOM was also prosecuted since he was the person who actually made the false entries. Unfortunately, the OIG's summary doesn't say anything about prosecution of the DOM.
Finally, in Florida a mechanic was sentenced to three years probation and a $300 special assessment for falsifying the overhaul of a Bell Helicopter main rotor hub assembly and for falsifying the 100 hour inspections on two Bell Helicopters. The A & P mechanic apparently signed off that he overhauled a main rotor hub assembly, a compressor assembly, a turbine assembly, and a gearbox assembly with new parts when the parts he used were removed from a crashed helicopter. During the course of the OIG's investigation, the mechanic also admitted that he signed off on two 100 hour inspections when he hadn't completed proper inspections of either helicopter.
In order to avoid a criminal trial that could have resulted in a conviction and some significant prison time, the mechanic agreed to plead guilty to the falsification charge and accept the sentence. However, as a condition of the plea and sentence, the mechanic also agreed to permanently surrender and forfeit his mechanic certificate and to not reapply for a mechanic certificate upon completion of his sentence.
Although permanent surrender seems like a severe condition, it is hard to say based upon the minimal facts that are provided in the OIG's summary. Perhaps the case involved aggravating circumstances (e.g. an accident involving the helicopter that resulted in injuries or fatalities). Also, the mechanic may have preferred a permanent bar from the industry rather than serving time in jail or prison.
These cases certainly are not the norm. However, they should provide a healthy reminder that paperwork violations are serious and falsification of aircraft documentation can expose aircraft mechanics to significant risk beyond revocation of their A & P certificates. Criminal liability is possible and a change in profession could be required. In the end, it just isn't worth it.