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Bernie Madoff, Mini-M, & Mohamed Atta
New owner of 'terror' flight school in huge Ponzi scheme

March 20 2009
by Daniel Hopsicker


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Another owner of the flight school in Venice Florida that trained Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi to fly is in trouble with the law; current owner Arthur G. Nadel, 75,  was arrested recently for running a Ponzi scheme which methodically looted investors in his Sarasota-based hedge funds of more than $300 million. 

Nadel's arrest marks the second time in recent years that the owner of Huffman Aviation, the FBO (fixed base of operations) at the Venice Airport has been involved in crimes traditionally associated with the Mob.

Ponzi schemes, of course, are a trademark Mafia specialty. So, too, is the crime of heroin trafficking in which previous owner Wally Hilliard was implicated.

Nadel may have stolen as much as $350 million from his hedge fund investors, many of them middle-class retirees who do not  fit the typical hedge fund investor profile of wealthy people willing to risk their entire investment.

New York tabloids, already in overdrive on the story of Bernard Madoff,  instantly dubbed Nadel Mini-M, for Mini-Madoff.

Before turning himself in late January,  Nadel spent several weeks on the lam.  Rumors spread that Nadel was already dead. 

He wasn't... Instead he was flying above the clouds on a sleek luxury jet, from Sarasota to San Antonio to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans. His high-end Learjet 31-A offers performance matched by few other civilian airplanes; it cruises comfortably at 500 miles an hour, and at an altitude of 51,000 feet,


A few questions no one is asking

Nadel was worried, he wrote, about being murdered. But not, we  suspect, by one of the blue-haired widows from whom he stole millions.

For most of his life, Art Nadel was a "jazz pianist," meaning he played the piano in hotel lounges, not seen as a springboard to careers of looting at will.

Take a closer look at the Learjet he was flying before his arrest. Does that look like the ride of a piano player?

While previous owner Wallace J. Hilliard owned Huffman Aviation, and Mohamed Atta was taking flying lessons,  DEA agents busted Hilliard’s Learjet carrying 43 lbs. of heroin. It was July 25, 2000,  at the  Orlando Executive Airport.

43 lbs of heroin is known in the trade, we have been told, as " heavy weight."

How did city officials in Venice allow the airport's mission-critical FBO to fall into the hands--not once but twice--of people otherwise engaged in organized crime?

How many small towns with barely ten thousand people “boast” a tiny local  airport which play host to terrorist hijackers? Or been run by a heroin trafficker disguised as a flight school owner, or a man accused of stealing $300 million in a huge financial fraud?

Why do shadowy underworld figures have the permanent run of the airport in Venice, Florida?


It Happened in Venice

Before each man had purchased the major business at the tiny Venice Airport, neither Art Nadel nor Wally Hilliard’s background offered much in the way of clues  indicating involvement with organized crime. 

After Nadel went on the lam reporters discovered he had been a lawyer in New York who was disbarred in 1982 by the New York Supreme Court. Nadel 'kept' a client's $50,000 escrow check, and neglected to return it.

He was worried, at that time, according to Sarasota Private investigator Bill Warner  (whose reporting on Nadel has outpaced the entire staff of the local Sarasota Herald-Tribune) over an unpaid $50,000 loan to a loan shark.

If Nadel was able to borrow $50,000 from a loan shark in New York in 1980, he already had connections with the Mob. Loan sharks are not listed in the New York City phone book.

For his part, Hilliard, who owned Huffman Aviation between 1999 and 2003, was an insurance executive who supposedly ‘retired’ to Florida in 1996 from Green Bay, Wisconsin, not a known hot-bed of Mafia activity.

Hilliard did have connections, however. Not with the Mob, perhaps, but with the CIA, through Myron DuBain, a World War II OSS/CIA operative who became the chairman of Fireman's Fund Insurance, which announced plans to acquire the insurance company founded by Hilliard back in 1982.

DuBain later founded a San Francisco supper club with oilman Gordon Getty and Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz; his "Pacific Institute" kept former Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld busy in the 1990s.


"He needed a little alone time."

Nadel’s fraud began to unravel soon after he left his four-bedroom home for work on the morning of Jan. 14  and didn’t return. By that weekend the Federal Bureau of Investigation had joined local police to search for him.

Nadel's attorneys initially denied he was trying to run away.  One of them told reporters, “He went away for a while just to be alone.”

But it was soon clear to all that Nadel was on the run.

Panicked and desperate investors began beseeching Sarasota police and the FBI to find and apprehend him.

Like Madoff, but in a smaller social arena, Art Nadel was considered a trusted and generous philanthropist in Sarasota. But unlike Madoff, many more "ordinary" and perhaps slightly less-sophisticated investors were devastated by Nadel’s Ponzi scheme.

The big question which people in this dire circumstance are understandably concerned with is simple:

"What happened to the money?"


"
Fast planes, yep, and lots of hangars too!"

One answer has already become obvious. Nadel spent an enormous amount of money on airplanes and aviation facilities.

Nadel used proceeds from the fraud to purchase what he re-named the Venice Jet Center at the Venice Airport, the same building whose blue awning became well-known internationally after the 9/11 attack as the home of dozens of young Arab men suspected of being terrorists learned to fly.

His "passion for aviation" led him to illegally divert $4 million to the Venice Jet Center and Tradewind LLC, an aviation company he owns which has aircraft and hangars in Georgia and North Carolina.

Managers of Nadel’s hedge funds told clients that their money was gone; that the man behind it had vanished; and that they were frankly not real hopeful any of it would ever be recovered.

Strangely, however, there were two Florida law enforcement agencies which were seemingly unconcerned by Nadel’s disappearance.

The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office even announced it was ending its search for Nadel on the dubious ground that since the Florida financier's car had been  found at a Sarasota airport, he wasn’t really missing. 

According to a January 21 Associated Press story headlined “Authorities think money manager planned to vanish,” the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department reasoning was  that Nadel, who had not yet been charged with any crime, had planned his own disappearance, and left on his own volition.

"He doesn't want to be found," shrugged a Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman.

Perhaps the Sheriff's Department didn't want him to be found. The man picked by Art Nadel to look after his interests at the Venice Airport, Roger Jernigan, worked for the Sarasota Sheriff’s Dept as a helicopter pilot until forced to resign under a cloud.

The second Florida law enforcement agency exhibiting strange behavior during the search for Art Nadel is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE. 

And what they did deserves its own story.

NEXT: The War for Control of the Venice FL "Plaza"

 

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