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Carson Helicopter officials indicted in fraud case related to crash that killed seven firefighters

Two Carson Helicopter Inc. officials have been indicted on federal charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Forest Service by falsifying information about the weight, balance and performance of firefighting helicopters.

The allegedly false information was provided so Carson could get $20 million in contracts, the U.S. Department of Justice reported in a news release today. But it was also used by pilots, thereby endangering the safety of the helicopters in flight, it said.

A Carson helicopter crashed Aug. 5, 2008, while fighting the Iron 44 fire in Northern California, killing nine people, including seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties.

Steven Metheny, 42, of Central Point, and Levi Phillips, 45, of Grants Pass, were indicted last week by a federal grand jury sitting in Medford.

Metheny, a former vice president of Carson Helicopters Inc. in Grants Pass, was also charged in 22 other counts of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment.

Phillips was the company's director of maintenance, reporting directly to Metheny.

The indictment says that roughly between March and October 2008, Metheny and Phillips submitted bid proposals on behalf of Carson Helicopters that contained information that the two knew was false.

The bid proposals contained falsified helicopter weight and balance charts and falsely altered helicopter performance charts that were submitted so the Forest Service could determine whether the helicopters met minimum contract specifications, court documents claim. Prosecutors described the altered documents as part of a scheme to defraud the government.

As a result of these "materially false and fraudulent representations," Carson Helicopters got contract work more than $20 million, federal prosecutors said in today's release.

The indictment also says that Metheny knowingly distributed the fake charts to pilots and in flight manuals for use in the field. Pilots, unaware that the charts weren't true, used them for planning regular operations, such as calculating the helicopter's maximum payload capacity during firefighting operations.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 2010 that Merlin-based Carson Helicopters' deliberate understatement of the weight of its Sikorsky S-61N helicopter by more than 1,000 pounds and lapses in safety oversight caused the fatal crash.

In March 2012, a federal jury in a civil suit in Portland determined that a faulty engine, not overloading, was responsible. That suit sought $177 million from engine-maker General Electric.

— Anita Burke