The Federal Aviation Administration's former deputy chief "probably did violate" federal law when he contacted FAA employes on behalf of Provincetown Boston Airlines after it was grounded for safety violations last November, the Transportation Department's ethics officer has ruled.
However, any violations by Michael J. Fenello, the former deputy administrator, "were relatively minor and were not made with any intent to improperly influence agency action," the officer said in a report to Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole.
"I do not believe any referral to the Justice Department or further DOT administrative action is warranted," the report said, assuming that no additional information is discovered by the department's inspector general.
The inspector general's inquiry is continuing, and Dole is awaiting that report before making a decision on further action, sources said. A copy of the ethics officer's report was obtained by The Washington Post.
Provincetown Boston Airlines (PBA) was grounded Nov. 9 because, the FAA said in its revocation order, the airline had "fraudulently or intentionally" changed pilot training records.
Fenello, who left the FAA May 1, was hired by PBA as a vice president for operations on Nov. 14 and held that job until last Friday, a spokesman there said. Fenello could not be reached for comment.
Many of PBA's planes were permitted to return to service Nov. 24. On Dec. 6, a PBA plane crashed after taking off from Jacksonville, Fla., killing all 13 people on board in an accident that continues to puzzle investigators.
The ethics inquiry was ordered by Dole after The Post reported that Fenello had contacted FAA employes while PBA was seeking FAA approval to return to service.
The Ethics in Government Act makes it illegal for a former senior federal employe -- as Fenello was -- to represent anyone in an attempt to influence his former agency.
The report said that Fenello called FAA chief counsel J.E. Murdock III "at home for his views on accepting" the PBA job when it was offered.
"Murdock told him it would be good to have someone in PBA who knew how to run an airline, but he could not represent PBA before the FAA," the report said.
The report lists several contacts between Fenello and the FAA recertification team, between Fenello and the chief of FAA's southern region in Atlanta, and between Fenello and Anthony J. Broderick, then deputy chief of the FAA's aviation standards office here.
FAA employes told the ethics office "that they never felt pressured or influenced by Fenello," the report said. The report also said "it is fair to infer that on some occasions Fenello did engage directly with the FAA representatives . . . and in so doing was in effect representing PBA."
When Fenello called Broderick, he asked "if it were possible under the rules" to gain relief from an FAA requirement that was keeping PBA's DC3 fleet on the ground after other planes were permitted to fly.
Broderick explained the options, the report said, "and suggested that Fenello talk to the FAA lawyers."
That contact, the report said, could arguably "be construed as crossing the line." But Broderick characterized Fenello's call as a request for information, not an effort to influence, the report said.
Peter H. Van Arsdale, PBA's new chief executive officer, said in an interview in late December that Fenello was hired temporarily until a permanent operations chief could be found. "It angers me that this conflict of interest subject has even come up," Van Arsdale said.
Van Arsdale is a Republican activist and member of the "Eagles," a group of major contributors to the party. But DOT officials at several levels said there was no political pressure to restore PBA's right to fly.
On Tuesday, PBA announced it is eliminating service to 13 locales, including New Orleans and the Bahamas. It will continue to serve Florida with its southern operation and Cape Cod resorts with its northern fleet, a spokesman said.