Crime

FAA safety inspector found guilty of taking thousands in cash bribes from aviation contractor

Miami International Airport
Miami International Airport Getty Images

A South Florida aviation safety inspector accused of pocketing more than $150,000 from a federal contractor in exchange for costly repair manuals and inspection alerts was found guilty Thursday of a bribery conspiracy and multiple related charges.

Manuel R. Fernandez, who was convicted of taking the cash bribes for more than three years as a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, arranged for his mother to work as a “ghost” employee for the FAA-certified contractor to receive some of the payments for him, according to evidence at his corruption trial in Miami.

After four hours of deliberations, the 12-person federal jury found that Fernandez didn’t disclose that he was working on the side for the avionics electronics repair company and didn’t reveal the money he made in unlawful bribes while he was employed by the FAA between early 2010 and mid-2013.

In exchange for the payoffs, the jury found, Fernandez supplied a variety of aviation maintenance manuals that normally cost from $100 to $15,000 to AVCOM Avionics and Instruments in Doral, according to court records. He also provided insider information about pending FAA safety inspections of its warehouse facility, which specialized in repairing aviation electronics equipment.

Fernandez, 41, is scheduled for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke on Aug. 28. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Fernandez remains free on bail, though the judge imposed new bond conditions, including requiring the convicted defendant to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and obey an 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office urged the judge to remand Fernandez into federal custody, saying he still has substantial assets that he could cash in and use to flee the country. But his defense attorney countered that he is not a flight risk and appeared for trial, which began in mid-May.

After the closing arguments ended late Tuesday, the federal jury deliberated for two hours, took a break Wednesday, and then completed two more hours of deliberations on Thursday. Jurors found Fernandez guilty of one bribery conspiracy count, 15 bribery charges, two wire fraud charges, two aggravated identity theft charges and one false statement charge.

During closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors depicted Fernandez as a “corrupt public official” who “lined his pockets” at the expense of aviation safety.

“He sold out on his official duties,” prosecutor Michael Davis said.

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.

Fernandez, who had worked at the FAA for seven years and earned more than $100,000 annually, was charged in 2017.

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 a co-owner of AVCOM, Rolando Suarez, who was sentenced to two years in prison. His ex-wife, Patricia Suarez, also an AVCOM co-owner, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years’ probation before Fernandez’s trial. Both were ordered to repay the U.S. government more than $700,000, including money from the bribery scheme.

The company is still in business but under different management.

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