FAA Investigates Pilot Licenses in Alleged Bribery Scheme
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Federal Aviation Administration and airline officials are investigating the qualifications of Korean pilots whose American licenses were approved by an inspector targeted in a bribery investigation, spokesmen said.
Twenty-nine of the 31 pilots named in a federal affidavit fly for Asiana Airlines, a fast-growing carrier based in Seoul, Korea. The pilots received training at Wings Over California, a San Jose, Calif., flight school.
Affidavits filed in federal court allege Joseph Patrick Escalon, who processes license applications for the FAA in Oklahoma City, took $2,000 and an expenses-paid trip to South Korea from Hae Min ``Bob″ Lee, who coordinates the training of Korean pilots at Wings Over California.
In return for the money and trip, Escalon speeded up approval of licenses for pilots at the flight school, including some he normally would not have processed, according to search warrant affidavits filed in federal courts in Oklahoma and California. The affidavits also allege some training flights listed on applications may not have actually taken place.
``We are investigating all of that,″ Mitch Barker, an FAA spokesman in Seattle, said Thursday. But he said the agency has little power over foreign pilots if they are flying foreign aircraft.
Barker refused to discuss specifics about investigations into the airline, the pilots and the flight school.
The airline flies routes throughout Asia and across the Pacific to destinations that include New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco and Seattle.
Patrick Khoury, Asiana’s general manager of marketing and sales for the Americas, said the airline is conducting an internal investigation of the pilot’s qualifications.
But Khoury, who is based in Los Angeles, also said the pilots were all qualified to fly the company’s planes before pursuing the additional certificate required to fly as a captain.
Khoury said he none of the men involved in the investigation were actually captaining the company’s planes. But he said no pilots have been grounded as a result of the allegations.
No charges have been filed, but Escalon was suspended with pay in February. The affidavits indicate he and Lee could face federal bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud charges. Telephone calls to Escalon’s home were not returned.
``The fact is, I didn’t do anything wrong,″ Lee said this week. ``Expediting is totally legal.″ Lee maintains the $2,000 was a loan that Escalon’s wife has already begun to pay back.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hank Hockeimer would not comment when asked if Asiana Airlines was directly involved.
``The investigation is ongoing and it’s comprehensive,″ Hockeimer said.
But both Lee and a spokesman for the airline deny any association.
``The company has no record that Lee is now or ever has been an employee of Asiana Airlines,″ Khoury said.
Lee said pilots choose their own flight schools and added that he also works with pilots for Korean Air Lines, Asiana’s chief competitor. Khoury said the airline does not direct pilots to Wings Over California and noted that most of its 693 pilots receive training elsewhere.
One of Escalon’s supervisors began reviewing the inspector’s work after Escalon took a trip to Korea in September, according to the affidavit.
The review revealed that Escalon had processed 31 applications from Korean nationals trained at Wings Over California between October 1994 and October 1995. Twenty-nine indicated they worked for Asiana Airlines. And 29 of the pilots’ last names were out of the alphabetical range Escalon normally handles.
While processing such applications normally takes about 45 days, many of the Korean applications were pushed through in less than a week, according to the affidavit. Asiana’s pilots are not paid while seeking the advanced license, Khoury said.
A search of Escalon’s Oklahoma City home yielded a jewelry box Escalon admitted taking from Asiana Airline officials during the trip as well as a wall clock from the airline, according to court documents. FBI agents also found a business card for Clifford Hodges, a flight instructor at Wings Over California who trained all 31 of the Korean pilots.
Phone records revealed frequent calls from Wings Over California and Lee’s other phones to Escalon’s office and home.
The affidavits also allege the Korean pilots may not have actually taken all the training flights required for an air transport certificate.
``Several of the applications did not meet minimum FAA standards in that they failed to show that the applicants had sufficient prior training and experience,″ FBI Special Agent Andrew Farabow wrote in the affidavit. ``Records seized from Wings Over California indicated that several of the flight tests reflected on the applications may not have even taken place.″
Lee denied the pilots were undertrained, saying they all had extensive military or commercial experience.
``They are not fresh, new pilots,″ Lee said.