A luxury charter jet company that sources said had catered to celebrities and ex-Presidents from Beyonce to Bill Clinton was charged Wednesday with putting lives at risk by secretly loading up on jet fuel at airports like Teterboro, where one of its planes crashed in 2005.
Executives with the now-defunct Platinum Jet management firm routinely over-fueled its planes in a "scheme" to save money, which federal investigators blasted as a "dangerous game."
Marquee names had dotted its passenger lists, sources said, including former president George H.W. Bush, basketball great Shaquille O'Neal, Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, rappers Jay Z, Sean "Diddy" Combs, and Snoop Dogg, actor Burt Reynolds, movie producer Harvey Weinstein and crime author Patricia Cornwell.
Authorities said they believe Platinum jets routinely cut corners and endangered lives.
"It is astounding -- and criminal -- that owners and operators of jet aircraft would repeatedly engage in such a dangerous game with passengers and airplanes," said Ralph Marra, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.
The Teterboro flight that crashed in February 2005 had a dangerous weight configuration at take-off, officials said. The jet crashed through a fence, crossed Route 46, hitting several cars, before it slammed into a clothing warehouse. Nobody was killed, but 20 people were injured -- including a driver and passenger whose car roof was sheared off by the plane -- and several other people on the ground.
"The fuel loading was the primary contributing factor in the crash," said Marra.
The FBI arrested the firm's co-founders, Michael and Paul Brassington, in Fort Lauderdale. Also charged were Andre Budhan, Joseph Singh, Brien McKenzie and Francis Vieira. Among the charges: conspiracy to commit wire fraud, making false statements and lying to the NTSB. They denied wrongdoing.
FBI officials said the firm tried to save money by fueling its planes at Teterboro where it had a contract and its fuel costs were lower. Authorities said the firm allegedly tried to overload the plane with cheap fuel so refills at other airports would not be as costly, and then lie about centers-of-gravity, which were too far forward, because of this "Tankering Scheme."
Investigators added that the charter firm lied to the FAA about the qualifications of its pilots.
Prosecutors said the pilots of the crashed plane were not FAA-approved to fly that type of commercial aircraft. However, their attorney, Chris Mancini, denied any wrongdoing and said his clients were fully licensed. They were not charged.
Jonathan Dienst WNBC