“Come on. It’s laughable.” Need to expand FAA Title Registration Research Assets

US Attorney indictment
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FAA Title Registration for Foreign Owners under Trust

Found by WFAA and Indicted by US Attorney

Well Known Title Registration accused of inadequate Research

Aircraft used for Drug Carriage

The quote, “Come on it’s Laughable” cames from a US Representative. He was made aware of  a serious deficiency in the FAA Registration of foreign based aircraft under the statutory Trust rules. Now the action of a US Attorney should move this from criticism to action.

Drug cartels search for soft underbellies in the governments to facilitate their carriage of contraband into the US and other jurisdictions. The case announced in the above Press Release is just such a crack in the protections of illegal foreign flights. The details of the accusations are disturbing, and the inception point was flagged two years ago:

Analaska Blog

WFAA found an operation in Onalaska, TX. It reported When you can conceal the true ownership of a plane, you’re putting a lot of people in jeopardy,’ former Federal Aviation Administration special agent Joe Gutheinz told WFAA. ‘If you’re a terrorist and you have a way of concealing your secret ownership of a plane in the United States, you’re going to do it.’

The process of registering a plane in the U.S. can be as simple or tricky as the registrant wants it to be. Any aircraft owner who’s an American citizen or permanent resident can register a plane. But the FAA [1]allows foreign residents to register planes through a trustee.

WFAA said it investigated such “trust companies” that handled requests from so many airplane owners, and that company officials {Debra Lynn Mercer-Erwin] said they did their “due diligence” vetting them.

≡ I would find it very difficult for a criminal or a drug user 
to place their aircraft in trust, and why would they?” Mercer-Erwin 
told WFAA. “… We know who our clients are. We collect all the information.”≡ 
Debra Lynn Mercer-Erwin from a later interview

We shouldn’t require less information to…to register a car than to register an aircraft,” U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said. “If you are a foreign national…you can register an aircraft here and the government doesn’t know anything about it. Come one. It’s laughable.”

 representative stephen lynch

Aircraft registration49 U.S. Code § 44103) is a ministerial, but essential function of the FAA and all civil aviation authorities under Article 20 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Completion of the registration process involves a number of highly technical perquisites and results in the issuance of an N number, which serves as the equivalent of an automobile license plate.

n number and NC tag

The FAA title registration, however, can be extremely complex, especially involving the rules as to trusts and foreign ownership. Further, the civil servants in the Oklahoma City office have been overwhelmed due to the volume of requests for the US N number.

Several proposals have been offered to deal with this demand through enhanced technology; none as to the underlying problem in the Debra Lynn Mercer-Erwin, Wright Brothers Aircraft Title (WBAT) and Aircraft Guaranty Corp. case—RESEARCH AS TO STATEMENTS SUBMITTED BY THE TRUSTEE.

There ought to be tighter standards (statutory), verification and added personnel to catch bogus foreign registration. The FAA Aircraft Registry, part of the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, OK, already has greater demand for its services to complete its ministerial tasks. It is no wonder that the staff did not notice the profusion of Onalaska registrations.

example of filing

 

To go beyond its existing basic assignments and to inquire behind the information submitted would require different job descriptions, skills and staffing levels. Research under what the trust submits would establish a different paradigm—more people, assets and time.

Such changes are totally within the authority of Congress and Rep. Lynch.

US Attorney Press Release


U.S. Government Indicts Aircraft Title, Trust Company Owner

by Matt Thurber

– March 4, 2021, 6:20 PM

 

Debra Lynn Mercer-Erwin,

The indictment of a well-known[2] owner of an aviation title company on various charges raises an important issue regarding the responsibility borne by owner trustees when it comes to helping a non-U.S. citizen purchase an aircraft and register it in the U.S.

WBAT and AGC

Debra Lynn Mercer-Erwin, owner of Wright Brothers Aircraft Title (WBAT) and Aircraft Guaranty Corp. (AGC), was arrested in Oklahoma on Dec. 18, 2020, and was subsequently moved to Texas. On February 24, a U.S. grand jury indictment was unsealed in the case of the U.S. against Mercer-Erwin; her daughter Kayleigh Moffett, who was an officer of the companies; and six others. The indictment includes drug charges, money laundering, export violations, and aircraft registration violations.

According to the indictment, AGC acted as trustee and registered “thousands” of aircraft on behalf of foreign owners, which by itself is legal. For some unexplained reason, the indictment felt it necessary to point out that the aircraft were registered “in Onalaska Texas, an East Texas town without an airport.” Whether or not the registered address has an airport has no bearing on how trustee-registered aircraft are handled, but this seemingly extraneous information caught the attention of reporters at WFAA TV in Dallas, which wrote and produced stories about AGC and WBAT that resulted in an investigation by federal prosecutor Ernest Gonzalez and Mercer-Erwin’s subsequent arrest and the indictment.

WFAA

The problem wasn’t that AGC acted as a trustee but that defendants circumvent United States laws and regulations by placing N numbers in the hands of drug traffickers and prohibited foreign nationals,” according to the indictment.

Specifically, the indictment alleged: “First, the defendants violate FAA and Department of Commerce regulations to register aircraft with the United States while concealing the aircraft’s true ownership and exportation. Second, when law enforcement seizes a registered aircraft laden with drugs, the defendants deregister or otherwise transfer ownership of the aircraft. Finally, the defendants participated in a series of bogus aircraft sales transactions in order to conceal the movement of illegally obtained funds.”

Top of Form

.Bottom of Form

TRUSTEE RESPONSIBILITY

No matter who is involved in the purchase of an aircraft via a trustee, the FAA considers the trustee the owner of the aircraft. The owner is thus responsible for regulatory compliance. The responsibility held by owner-trustees for regulatory compliance is not new; the FAA pointed that out in a policy clarification in 2013, clearly outlining what it expects of aircraft owners that are also trustees for the purposes of helping a non-U.S. citizen buy an aircraft and register it in the U.S.

“The FAA does not consider the status of the trustee as the owner of the aircraft under a trust agreement as having any differing effect on its responsibilities for regulatory compliance issues compared to other owners of a U.S.-registered aircraft,” the agency wrote.

The indictment cited 22 allegedly “offending aircraft transactions,” many of which involved drug smuggling by aircraft registered with the defendant’s trust company, AGC.

One example is as follows: “On or about October 5, 2012, N305AG was registered to AGC
 …On or about January 27, 2020, N305AG was seized in Guatemala with approximately 
1,700 kilograms of cocaine. The aircraft was taken into Guatemalan custody, where it 
as remained ever since. On or about January 29, 2020, news reports published the 
seizure. Two days later, on or about January 31, 2020, Kayleigh Moffett transferred 
ownership of the aircraft to Arrendadora SA de CV, a foreign company….. On or about 
February 6, 2020, an open-source video of N305AG flying out of the Guatemalan jungle
 went viral. On or about February 20, 2020, Moffett filed a bill of sale with the FAA 
and asked to deregister the aircraft.”
The indictment goes on to highlight AGC’s “attempts to shirk its responsibilities by 
delegating regulation obligations to the foreign national.” As the FAA has repeatedly 
pointed out, the lessee, in this case, AGC, “is responsible for operating the aircraft 
in accordance and compliance with all laws, ordinances, and regulations relating to 
the possession, use, operation, or maintenance of the aircraft, including but not 
limited to, Federal Aviation Regulations.” 
The FAA goes on to note: “Lessee warrants it will not use the aircraft for an illegal purpose.”

[1] Congress, not the FAA, determined that foreign owned aircraft may be registered in the US in 49 USC §44103

[2] Several of the names listed do not recall Ms. Mercer-Erwin.

FAA aircraft registration form



 

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