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Oregon man pleads guilty to fraud in deadly 2008 helicopter crash

By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) - A former aircraft maintenance director has pleaded guilty to misleading the U.S. Forest Service to help his company win a $20 million contract in a case linked to the deadliest helicopter crash involving on-duty firefighters in U.S. history.

The 2008 incident near Weaverville, in Northern California, killed seven firefighters on board the helicopter as well as the pilot and a U.S. Forest Service official.

Levi Phillips, 46, pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of conspiring to defraud the Forest Service by creating false weight, balance and performance information for firefighting helicopters while he was employed as head of maintenance for Oregon-based Carson Helicopters Inc, according to court documents.

As part of a plea deal entered in U.S. District Court in Medford, Oregon, Phillips will testify against the company's vice president, Steven Metheny. Prosecutors say Metheny led the defrauding scheme.

Phillips, an Oregon resident, faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 14.

His attorney, federal public defender Brian Butler, did not return calls.

Phillips and Metheny were indicted by a federal grand jury in January, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon said in a statement.

Metheny was charged with more than 20 criminal counts, including mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the forest service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight and theft from an interstate shipment, according to a statement by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon. His trial is set to begin on March 4.

Carson Helicopters won a $20 million contract in April 2008 to provide helicopters and related services to the Forest Service, according to the indictment against the two men.

Phillips in his plea agreement said that to win the contract, he and Metheny intentionally provided false information about their helicopters such as maximum payload capacity.

The faulty data was used by pilots to conduct flights, the court papers said.

In August 2008, a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter from the men's firm swiped a treetop in Northern California during takeoff and plummeted in the crash that killed seven firefighters, the pilot and the forest service official. A co-pilot and two firefighters survived.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board showed the pilot had followed a Carson Helicopters manual, which was not approved by the helicopter's manufacturer or the U.S. Forest Service and had false weight and takeoff power charts.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Barbara Goldberg and Philip Barbara)

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