Will secret deal bring old management back to Venice Airport FBO?
What aren't they telling us about the new owners of Huffman Aviation–aka the Venice Jet Center– at the Venice Municipal Airport?
The hand-picked new ownership of the FBO (Fixed Base of Operations) at the Venice Municipal Airport has links to private military contractors in Georgia involved in CIA extraordinary renditions around the world, as well as other covert activity on behalf of the U.S. Government.
This same company turned over between 12-15 mid-sized regional jets to another owner of Huffman Aviation, Wallace J. Hilliard, ten years ago, for Hilliard's doomed from the start “start-up airline,” an operation so inept that on at least one publicized route, they never sold a single ticket.
The company or network of companies which has had so much involvement with recent owners of Huffman Aviation is known variously as “Phoenix Air,” “Phoenix Air Services,” and “Phoenix Continental."
Oddly, long after his start-up airline quit flying scheduled trips, Hilliard still had jets on the tarmacs and aprons of various airports. And he continued to pay pilots to be ready…
Perhaps just in case.
Details of how and what we found out in a moment.
The Venice Airport FBO, which used to be called Huffman Aviation, is located on a government utility, paid for with tax money, and without that government utility would not exist. It is the only significant cash-flow business at the Venice Airport.
Now, in a grab reminiscent of the so-called "privatization" of Russia during the early 1990’s, it is about to disappear.
The return of 'Sarasota Art'
The gloves came off again recently in the mostly covert war for control of the Venice Airport.
The flash-point, as always: who gets Art Nadel's crown jewel asset, the Venice Airport FBO better known as Huffman Aviation?
Appointed to unravel Art Nadel's massive $400 million Ponzi fraud, Tampa attorney Burton Wiand has been gathering, to pass on to Nadel's thousands of victims, what few wilted daisies remain in the trampled garden that was Sarasota Art Nadel’s company, “Scoop Management.”
Scoop had been rather cleverly disguised as a “hedge fund.”
But it may not, as popular wisdom has it, been named for the slang term for hot stock tip.
It's name could also refer to its function, as a scoop, “hoovering” small and loose change from entire regions of the country at once.
To no one's surprise, Nadel got a lot of help in this endeavor, from a positively rocking wrecking crew. One sad note is that the consummate skill displayed by these cool-headed pros in successfully tiptoe-ing away with a very respectable $400 million dollar score may never achieve the recognition it deserves.
Alas, either out of modesty, or because of some plenty hefty well-placed bribes, to date, their names remain unknown, apparently in danger of being lost to history.
Alas, we can hear the cynical talk starting already:
"Well, it was only $400 million."
"And, besides, this is Florida."
Here it it useful to remember what Wally Hilliard said to somebody during a fairly recent deposition.
At one point the woman suing him looked at him across the table and asked him if he ever worries about getting caught and having to go to jail.
Hilliard's reply, she told us later, was both enthusiastic and immediate.
"Not in Florida, baby-doll! Nobody ever goes to jail in Florida!”
"Has not been completely persuasive."
It’s impossible to miss the pain and humiliation felt by citizens of the decent, peaceful, and entirely pleasant city of Venice, Fl. over the unwelcome recognition their community has received because of it’s Municipal Airport, and its links to terrorism, drug smuggling, and covert intrigue.
Disappointed city officials even wanted the town to buy the Jet Center to get a rein on airport jet traffic. Some reckoned they might even gain a rein on the Venice Airport itself.
(Others, it must be said, find that idea “just too naïve for words.”)
"It stinks; it smells," Earl Niemoth, a Sarasota real estate investor and publisher who wants to buy the Jet Center, said of the announcement.
So there’s something incredibly, awfully—even suspiciously—odd about the behavior of Federal Receiver Burt Wiand and his steadfast determination to visit more tribulation on the countenances of the long-suffering and beleaguered citizenry of Venice, Florida.
In a caustic letter faxed to city officials announcing the sale of Huffman Aviation, Wiand couldn’t resist taking a few swipes at city officials.
"The city’s lack of good faith in this matter and the continued sending of self-serving disingenuous letters has not been persuasive,” trilled Wiand.
He’d reached an agreement “in principle” with a buyer, Wiand informed the city imperiously, “a Florida company with a lot of experience running airport maintenance facilities.”
Ho ho! Remember that phrase: "A Florida company with a lot of experience."'
Wiand felt free to steer the sale of the Art Nadel-owned FBO (think gas stations for airplanes, but with slightly better bathrooms) towards…well, towards just about anyone he damn well pleased, apparently.
And if they didn’t like it… well that was just too bad.
Before Burton Wiand got into what the unkind among us might call "the bankruptcy dodge," he spent decadesas an attorney at the SEC.
This, of course, is probably not quite the credential one once thought.
"Rivulets of judicial wisdom dribbled down his cheek…"
City Manager Isaac Turner called Wiand’s characterizations “off base.”
Wiand spurned overtures to purchase the Jet Center from at least one other buyer, as well as from the city of Venice itself. Amid loud protestations from several quarters that he’d ignored other bids, he negotiated a deal and presented it as a fait accompli.
Wiand’s actions indicated how little sympathy he possessed for the town’s majority opinion, which wanted the Airport to slip quietly away one night under cover of darkness.
It's called "rubbing salt in the wound."
Knowing the Venice City Council would have to approve the sale, Wiand was in effect saying: “Get over it.”
Incredibly, he was warning them: Things could get worse.
"If they don’t act nice, they’ll be dealing with Judge Lazzara,” Wiand warned city officials though the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
He was referring to the Federal Judge overseeing the receivership, Richard Lazzara, who has found rivers of judicial wisdom running through every motion Receiver Burton Wiand has filed so far.
There's one thing that's extremely important to note:
The Venice city officials responsible for the mess at the airport have never ever faced the threat of any legal consequences for standing idly by and allowing the airport’s mission-critical FBO to fall into the hands—twice in six years— of men involved in continuing criminal enterprise.
Aren't there any criminal sanctions for abdication of “fiduciary responsibility?”
While Burton Wiand, the FAA, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the FBI, and the Florida State Police (FDLE) have all eagerly lined up to “investigate,” on one pretext or other, the current slate of city officials in Venice, those same officials have tried to do the job they were elected to do: stop it from happening yet again.
“Working to win your trust. No. Really.”
The recently named buyer of the Venice Airport's FBO is “TriState Aviation Group LLC."
There was little if nothing to find out about TriState, which by itself is not terribly surprising.
TriState is a company which exists only on paper.
They were less than two weeks old as a company. So the company could probably use a little time in the bull-pen before being thrown into regular rotation.
What is surprising–and worthy of official investigation–is this:
Before the ink was dry on their incorporation papers, Tristate had received Burton Wiand’s nod to buy the major business at the Venice Airport.
All we could do was put together a few simple questions to put to Huffman's Aviation's hand-picked new owners. We checked the names of the three lads listed on the company’s registration.
Then we picked up the phone and began making a few calls.
And ironically, we owe all the credit for discovering the continuing efforts of U.S. covert agencies and their contractors to influence events at the Venice Airport to one of TriState’s three principals.
Florida's Newest Captain of Industry
His name is Henry Paulino.
We figured him for the easiest to reach. We're lazy. And someone had sent us the phone number where he works at Volo Aviation’s FBO at the airport in Manassas Virginia.
Alas, Henry Paulino wouldn’t return our calls. He successfully avoided us, which is a surprisingly-easy feat to accomplish, it turns out.
Then someone answering the phone at the Manassas Airport FBO got tired of hearing us call, and encouraged us in the direction of sending Henry an email.
An email! Of course! Why hadn’t we thought of that?
So we sent an email to Henry Paulino, (email address firstname.lastname@example.org), asking:
“Are you the “Henry Paulino" from this Feb. 15 2004 police report in the Westchester County Journal News?
Grand larceny charge: Henry Paulino, 37, of Jersey City, N.J., was arrested Feb. 15 and charged with felony fourth-degree grand larceny, fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property and second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument. He is accused of shoplifting about $1,600 in clothes from Filene's department store in the Palisades Center. Police said he also had forged identification on him. He was arraigned and sent to the county jail without bail for future court dates.
"Henry Paulino," the paper had reported, had been 37 when he was arrested for felony grand larceny, possession of stolen property, and possession of a forged instrument, etc.
And there are, of course, lots and lots of Henry Paulino's. Chances are, the ages don't match.
Did Henry Paulino, about to become an owner of a multi-million dollar operation that is a tax-payer funded public utility get busted shoplifting $1,600 in clothes from a Filene's Department store?
While carrying multiple bogus identifications?
There's no telling. Certainly we don’t know. We haven’t heard back from him.
'All things come to those that wait"
But…we don't recall hearing anything about a company called "airproperty" in the Venice Airport FBO deal.
Why was Henry Paulino’s email address at something called “airproperty.net?”
Who were they?
Although airproperty does not appear to have any real existence as a company, the company which owns the registered the "airproperty" domain certainly does.
It's called "Airside Investors.”
And Airside Investors is slightly famous. The company owned a Gulfstream I, it was revealed in 2006, that was flying daily flights off the coast of Cuba.
The Bush White House itself gave the green light for the inclusion of funds for the plane's acquisition in the federal budget last year.
What was it doing there? If you answered "beaming Spanish language soap operas (non-communist TV) to a grateful Cuban nation," you probably are a Cuban in Miami, or work for the national Republican Party, or both.
The resulting bad publicity mostly fell on the broad shoulders of Phoenix Air, which by now is used to bad publicity.
The company has a lucrative sideline doing CIA renditions. Read all about it here.
On Florida incorporation documents, Phoenix Air's address is on the Navy's Key West Base.
And as for the Navy's Key West facility, alert readers may even recall that Mohamed Atta his-ownself used tohang out there some.
Over two decades of operation, this little government fiasco cost more than $500 million. The airplane part of the deal was a relative steal at $5-10 million a year.
The other problem with this otherwise admirable gravy train?
So what was one of the principals of brand spanking new TriState Aviation, Henry Paulino of Airside Investors, doing hanging out (leasing a plane) to a notorious private military contractor like Phoenix Air?
We may find out… someday. But not, we fear, till long after TriState Aviation takes over the FBO and gets comfortably ensconced behind the desk out at the Venice Municipal Airport.
No socks, no shirt, no corporate logo
TriState Aviation’s biggest selling point?
The company hasn’t been around long enough tohave a corporate history.
Less to know. Less to worry about.
Wiand’s statement—that he was selling the facility to “a Florida company with a lot of experience running airport maintenance facilities—” may not be a complete lie.
But its far from being the truth.
But he should at least release something saying that statement is no longer “operative.”
TriState probably doesn’t have a corporate logo, or even a motto.
Is this just sloppy tradecraft? That they didn't at least register the dummy company six months in advance borders on being insulting. Maybe even crosses the line.
Whatever you want to say about Wally Hilliard, his Wisconsin medical insurance company at least had a really cool corporate motto that was tongue-in-cheek droll too…
“Love God, Hate Sin, and Back the Pack!”
What TriState Aviation does have
Marty Kretchman was gamely–and even winningly—trying to keep his story straight. Kretchman said the ownership of his company includes private investors whose names he refuses to disclose.
And he reiterated that the hangars under dispute will have to be built where they are designated on Nadel's plans.
But we shouldn’t let that little things like offshore ownership and non-transparency keep us all from beingfriends…
"We're trying to be very transparent about this," Kretchman said. "We're just a bunch of guys who loved airplanes as kids."
In a letter to Venice’s citizen-journalist and watchdog John Patten, he wrote,
“TriState Aviation Group LLC. is comprised of myselfBrian Ciambra and Henry Paulino.”
“Collectively, we have over 40 years of combined experience owning and operating Fixed Base Operations, including the management and structuring of the Volo Aviation chain of FBO's across the country.”
One question we’d like to hear someone ask Marty, just for the record, is:
“Pardon me… But which FBO was it that y’all claim to have owned, and when?”
Don't get us wrong. We're big fans.
Marty Kretchman is totally smooth enough to have a future in successful indirection. One example:
“Brian has more recently served as the Vice President of Operations for Volo Aviation, an FBO venture of Merrill Lynch,” he said.
Alas, Volo Aviation isn’t an FBO venture of Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch doesn’t have an “FBO venture.”
Marty Kretchman's boss, however, does have an FBO venture. And its partially funded by Merrill Lynch. But its not their deal.
It's Kretchman's boss’s deal. Maybe his boss asked him: See if you can keep my name out of the papers.
For the moment at least, we’ll respect his anonymity, too.
It's a topic we can always come back and revisit.