Eastern Supervisor Pleads Guilty in Maintenance Scheme
NEW YORK (AP) _ A former Eastern Airlines foreman pleaded guilty Monday to charges he ignored vital maintenance and safety repairs and then falsified records to make it appear the work had been done.
Elia Dragone, 29, of Jersey City, N.J., was the first employee of the troubled airline to plead guilty in a broad scheme that allegedly allowed unsafe airliners to fly.
Dragone, who worked at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, told a federal judge in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn that the fraud was orchestrated by his superiors at the airline.
Eastern and nine of its managers were charged last week in a 60-count criminal indictment that alleges conspiracy to defraud the government, wire fraud, falsification of documents and obstruction of justice.
Dragone, named in 20 counts of the indictment, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge I. Leo Glasser to two counts - conspiracy and obstructing a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into the airline.
He faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count at sentencing Oct. 17. Dragone was allowed to remain free on his own recognizance.
In exchange for cooperating in the investigation, the government will dismiss the other charges against Dragone and recommend leniency in sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles W. Gerber said.
According to a four-page plea agreement signed June 18, Dragone will testify at trials against Eastern and its employees. He also will cooperate in investigations of the airline by the FAA and other government agencies.
Prosecutors could not say how long Dragone worked for Eastern or when he left the company.
The indictment, unsealed last Wednesday, named Eastern and nine high-level management employees, including Edward Upton, former vice president of maintenance and engineering, and Thomas Lewis, Eastern’s maintenance director for the northeast region. They and the other defendants are to be arraigned Aug. 6.
In his plea, Dragone told Glasser the conspiracy was ″mainly related to my superiors.″
The criminal indictment, unprecedented in the airline industry, capped a 10-month grand jury investigation of Eastern and came as the troubled air carrier struggles to regain passengers, rebuild service and reorganize in bankruptcy court after a bitter strike.
In his plea, Dragone said he altered and falsified maintenance records to fraudulently make it appear maintenance work had been done on aircraft when, in fact, it had been ignored.
He said he also falsified aircraft log books, work cards and computer records to get Eastern aircraft into the air and avoid costly flight delays and cancellations.
The indictment, covering July 1985 to October 1989, outlined a management and airline scheme to pressure and intimidate employees to ″keep the aircraft in flight at all costs.″
The probe began two years ago after an Eastern maintenance supervisor voluntarily went to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and told of a pattern of irregularities at the airline.
No accidents or injuries resulted from the alleged violations and Eastern said it has corrected all deficiencies. The FAA said the airline now meets federal safety standards.