A former federal aviation inspector said at his sentencing Thursday that he was actually promoting safety when he pocketed more than $150,000 in bribes from a South Florida government contractor in exchange for supplying costly repair manuals and inspection alerts.
“I was promoting aviation,” Manuel R. Fernandez, the former Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector, told U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke.
Fernandez’s defense attorney, Ronald Gainor, was even more effusive about his convicted client: “This man furthered aviation safety, and he did it with a passion.”
But Cooke, who presided over Fernandez’s trial in June when he was found guilty of a bribery conspiracy and multiple related charges, said his conduct amounted to “thievery.” He was convicted of selling stolen avionics repair manuals while working as a safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and moonlighting for an FAA-certified contractor in Doral that paid him the bribes.
“He wanted to play both ends against the middle,” Cooke said, “and that’s wrong.”
Cooke imposed a prison sentence of six years and three months and a fine of $10,000, but the judge allowed Fernandez to surrender to prison authorities on Jan. 6. Fernandez must also pay restitution to Honeywell and other manufacturers of the avionics repair manuals and a forfeiture judgment to the U.S. government, which must still be decided at a later hearing.
The judge’s punishment was about one year less than the prosecution’s recommendation of between seven and nine years in prison. Fernandez’s lawyer asked for 2 1/2 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Davis mocked assertions by Fernandez and his lawyer that the defendant was promoting aviation safety while he was committing his crime.
“He was serving as a fox in a hen house,” Davis told the judge. “He was betraying the public trust and public safety. … He sold them [the repair manuals] after he stole them. He was lining his pockets. He was not advancing aviation safety. He was impeding it.”
Fernandez, 42, who had worked at the FAA for seven years and earned more than $100,000 annually, was charged in 2017. His attorney, Gainor, attempted to describe him as a hard-working father who cared for his immediate family and parents. About 20 supporters showed up for his sentencing hearing.
In June, Fernandez was found guilty of taking cash bribes for three years as an FAA safety inspector and arranging for his mother to work as a “ghost” employee for the FAA-certified contractor in Doral to receive some of the payments for him.
Fernandez didn’t disclose that he was moonlighting 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 12-person federal 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.
During closing arguments at trial, 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,” said Davis, who prosecuted the FAA case with Assistant U.S. Attorney Yeney Hernandez.
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 pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. His ex-wife, Patricia Suarez, also an AVCOM co-owner, also 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.