South Florida

FAA safety inspector charged with taking cash bribes faces jury verdict in Miami

A plane leaves Miami International Airport, a county-owned facility.
A plane leaves Miami International Airport, a county-owned facility. Getty Images

For more than three years, a federal aviation safety inspector moonlighted for a private contractor he was supposed to keep an eye on but instead did favors for in an unusual bribery scheme even by South Florida standards, prosecutors said Tuesday at the end of a corruption trial in Miami.

The Federal Aviation Administration inspector accepted more than $150,000 in cash bribes from a Doral avionics firm, including arranging for his mother to work as a “ghost” employee at the company to receive some of the payments for him, they said during closing arguments.

As an FAA safety inspector, Manuel R. Fernandez didn’t disclose that he was working on the side for the aviation electronics repair company, didn’t reveal the money he illegally made in bribes, and didn’t perform his actual government job between early 2010 and mid-2013, according to an indictment.

In exchange for the payoffs, Fernandez is accused of supplying a variety of aviation maintenance manuals that normally cost from $100 to $15,000 to FAA-certified AVCOM Avionics and Instruments. He is also accused of providing insider information about pending FAA safety inspections of its facility in Doral, which specialized in repairing aviation electronics equipment.

“He sold out on his official duties,” prosecutor Michael Davis told the 12-person Miami federal jury, describing Fernandez as a “corrupt public official” who “lined his pockets” at the expense of aviation safety.

Fernandez’s defense attorney, Ronald Gainor, countered that the prosecutors distorted the reality of Fernandez’s conduct, saying the violations may have been civil or ethical in nature but certainly not criminal. “This is a case where the government is criminalizing civil violations,” Gainor said, as he urged the jurors “not to jump to conclusions” based on the government’s cherry-picking of evidence to make Fernandez look like a criminal.

After the closing arguments before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, the jury began deliberations late Tuesday, took a break Wednesday and will resume Thursday.

Fernandez, 41, who had worked at the FAA for seven years and earned more than $100,000 annually, was charged in 2017 with conspiring to commit bribery, multiple bribery counts and related offenses. If convicted, the Miami man faces a lengthy prison sentence.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with federal agents from the FBI and Department of Transportation, made the case against Fernandez by initially flipping the owners of AVCOM, Rolando Suarez, who was sentenced to two years in prison, and his ex-wife, Patricia Suarez, who was sentenced to five years’ probation. Both were ordered to repay the U.S. government more than $700,000, including money from the alleged bribery scheme.

The company is still in business but under a different owner.

Rolando Suarez testified against Fernandez at the nearly monthlong trial, claiming the FAA safety inspector saved his avionics firm substantial costs by illegally supplying “unauthorized” manuals by “original equipment manufacturers,” such as Honeywell International Inc. Fernandez obtained the manuals from a colleague who worked at Delta Airlines and from the FAA, and he transmitted the publications electronically to Suarez’s company, AVCOM.

Suarez said that Fernandez helped AVCOM cover up the unlawful practice by erasing words like “confidential,” “copyrighted” and “trade secret material” from the manufacturers’ technical publications.

Suarez also testified that Fernandez tipped off his firm to FAA inspections not only of his firm but its competitors, and furnished secrets about the aviation industry as well. He also said that Fernandez withheld AVCOM’s safety and other regulatory violations from his bosses at the FAA’s South Florida safety inspection office in Miramar.

In exchange, Suarez said his company paid Fernandez with cash, checks, credit cards, cruise tickets, and airline tickets. Suarez even hired the FAA safety inspector while he was still working for the government, giving him job titles such as “vice president of operations.” AVCOM signed a contract to hire Fernandez full time after he left the FAA in June 2013.

But Fernandez’s attorney, Gainor, portrayed Suarez as an “off-balance” business executive with a paranoid personality who accused the FAA inspector of having an affair with his wife.

“He lied to you,” Gainor told the jurors, as he described the testimony by the government’s main witness.

The defense attorney insisted Fernandez didn’t break the law, suggesting he only violated some FAA regulations on outside employment in the aviation industry.

“He’s a family man, who belongs with his family,” Gainor said of his client. “Leave him there.”

Another federal prosecutor, however, refocused the jury on Fernandez’s profile as a “corrupt public official” who betrayed the FAA to enrich himself.

Prosecutor Yeney Hernandez said there are not “two sides” to the evidence, as the defense argued in closing arguments. “The truth is, Mr. Fernandez was taking bribes and violating his duties as an FAA safety inspector,” Hernandez told the jurors. “The defendant was paid lots and lots of money.”

Hernandez pointed out that Fernandez’s bank account received $72,000 in cash payments from AVCOM over the 3 1/2 years of the bribery scheme, while his mother’s account received another $86,000 in cash payments from the firm. The prosecutor described the bribes as a “river of cash,” arguing it was “money that would separate this from a civil case to outright criminal.”

She also cited a video showing Fernandez working at his desk at AVCOM in mid-May 2013 when he was supposed to be at his FAA safety inspector job. The video further shows Fernandez frantically rushing out of the AVCOM office when learning that an FAA inspector has shown up unannounced at the avionics company in Doral.

A few weeks later, she said, Fernandez illegally cashed in on some unused sick time at his FAA job by forging the signature of a doctor and claiming he had “severe back pain” as an excuse to take the time off. He joined AVCOM as a full-time employee in June 2013.

“Lies beget more lies,” Hernandez told the jurors, saying “the truth fits the bank records.”

Prosecutors say Elezear Gadea, owner of the Rancho Okeechobee west of Hialeah, paid $2,000 to an undercover cop posing as an aide for county commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.