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False records at plane crash owners office

A manager with the company that owned the Learjet in which golfer Payne Stewart and five others died in a 1999 crash falsified training records for the pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

This marks the first time the government has publicly accused anyone of wrongdoing in connection with the crash on Oct. 25, 1999. The FBI and Transportation Department are still investigating.

The families of Stewart and three other victims also have sued the plane's owner and operator.

Stewart died on a flight from Florida to Texas four months after winning his second U.S. Open and one month after helping the United States win back the Ryder Cup.

FAA lawyer Raymond Veatch told a federal administrative judge Tuesday, Jan. 23 that James Watkins Sr. of SunJet Aviation filed false records about the amount of time he had spent training pilot Michael Kling and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue.

The revelation came during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing into whether Watkins, chief pilot for SunJet and father of the company president at the time of the crash, should permanently lose his license to fly.

Dozens of agents seized almost all the company's business records at its headquarters at Orlando Sanford Airport last April.

Watkins's son, James Watkins Jr., has repeatedly said SunJet, which has since been sold, was not responsible for the crash.

On Tuesday, Administrative Judge William Pope asked Veatch if the elder Watkins had anything to do with the crash.

"He falsified documents,'' Veatch said. "He had been complicit in some of the wrongdoing by SunJet.''

The FAA will present evidence that Watkins falsified the training records of six other pilots and should be permanently grounded, Veatch said.

Robert Leventhal, Watkins's defense attorney, argued that Kling and Bellegarrigue received the proper training from Watkins.

"Those pilots were exceptionally well-trained,'' he said, adding accusations that his client falsified training records are "a pile of baloney.''

The NTSB has concluded the cabin lost air pressure, something that likely caused the crew and passengers to pass out soon after takeoff. The plane flew on autopilot for several hours before crashing into a pasture in South Dakota.

Kling, 42, a former Air Force pilot, had thousands of hours of experience. However, he had received his government certification to fly the Learjet only about a month before the crash.

Bellegarrigue, 27, had been cleared to fly Learjets six months before the crash.

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