CRIME

Helicopter executive pleads guilty to falsifying aircraft weights to win firefighting contract

A former executive of a southern Oregon company whose helicopter crashed, killing nine people fighting a 2008 wildfire, has pleaded guilty to providing false aircraft weights to the U.S. Forest Service to win a firefighting contract.

Steven Metheny, of Medford, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Medford to fraud and conspiracy, two of the 22 counts of the indictment against him.

Metheny was vice president of Carson Helicopters outside Grants Pass when one of the company's helicopters crashed on takeoff while carrying a firefighting crew fighting the Iron 44 fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California. It was the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history.

Sentencing was set for March 2. Metheny faces up to 25 years in prison and $250,000 in fines on the two charges.

Defense lawyer Steve Myers noted that prosecutors never alleged that the false helicopter weights in any way contributed to the crash, and the plea agreement contained no reference to responsibility for the crash.

Nina Charlson, of Eugene, whose 25-year-old son was killed in the crash, told The Mail Tribune that she had expected Metheny to admit responsibility for the crash.

U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshal said in a statement that the false information created a "reckless risk of harm to those who used the information in firefighting operations," including those involved with the helicopter that crashed.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation showed the helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off, while Forest Service guidelines called for a limit of 15,840 pounds.

A Portland jury found that an engine problem was responsible for the crash.

In the plea agreement, Metheny admitted that he conspired with Levi Phillips, former director of maintenance for Carson, to submit false weights for their empty Sikorsky S-61N helicopters in their bid to the Forest Service for firefighting contracts in 2008. Phillips had created a formula to estimate the weight of empty helicopters, rather than actually weighing them, and Metheny knew the weights in the bids were based on estimates. The estimates were used to meet minimum contract specifications.

Phillips pleaded guilty to fraud in 2013 and had agreed to testify against Metheny. His sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 2, but Myers said he expected the two men to be sentenced together.