Pilots and line techs held on INS charges

 - March 31, 2008, 9:40 AM

Federal agents last month arrested six Venezuelan pilots and two ramp workers accused of using false immigration papers to obtain employment in the U.S. Two of the pilots, Pedro Agusti and Luis Garmendia, flew for American Airlines regional subsidiary American Eagle. Another pilot, Pedro Bottome, flew as a Citation X captain for Executive Jet Aviation. One of the ramp workers, Luis Gonzales, worked as a line serviceman for Signature Flight Support at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) International Airport.

All of the suspects except Garmendia live in Florida’s Broward County. INS agents apprehended Garmendia, a resident of Grapevine, Texas, after he completed a scheduled flight into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on February 9. Two others were taken into custody after landing at Miami International Airport.

According to the INS, the men paid as much as $25,000 to obtain the false documentation as part of a scheme that involved as many as 30 people. They paid to have their passports stamped with an I-551 “ADIT” stamp, which allows residence and employment in the U.S. for one year or until the applicant receives his or her green card. The stamp also allowed the men to get their pilots’ and drivers’ licenses.

Federal prosecutors charged all eight individuals with immigration-related offenses, including lying to Social Security Administration agents and document fraud. They subsequently dropped the most serious charges against Garmendia, who could have faced 10 years in prison if convicted of possessing false documents and making false statements to INS officials. American Eagle has placed Garmendia and Agusti on unpaid leave pending the outcome of their hearings in immigration court. According to the Federal Magistrate’s office in Miami, Agusti approached the INS in June with information about the scheme, sparking the investigation. As of February 19 Agusti had posted bail and secured his release. Prosecutors had until February 21 to issue an indictment.

An American Eagle spokesman refused to discuss details about its two pilots, saying only that the airline has cooperated fully with authorities. Doug Crowther, v-p of operations at Signature Flight Support at its Orlando headquarters, confirmed that Gonzales worked for the company at Fort Lauderdale International for three months and did nothing to raise any suspicions about his immigration status. “We did our background checks and he passed the airport screening to work here,” said Crowther. “He had what we assumed to be a valid driver’s license, what appeared to be a valid passport, visa and work permit, but of course we’ve since found otherwise.” Crowther said the company no longer considers Gonzales an employee. “The day he was arrested, he no longer qualified to work at the airport or for us.”

Columbus, Ohio-based Executive Jet has suspended Bottome, an EJA employee for two years, without pay pending the outcome of the investigation. Executive Jet COO Steve Brechter told AIN that Bottome “was a good pilot” and, as in the case of Gonzales, cleared all INS and company background checks. Since the arrest the company and the INS has begun a thorough rescreening of all its employees, both in Columbus and Miami.