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Refusal to Make Political Donation Led to Firing, Pilot Charges in Suit

July 11, 1987|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

A Newport Beach pilot who said he spent nearly half his time ferrying politicians in his company's corporate jet filed suit Friday against his former employer, alleging that he was fired because he refused to contribute to a political donation fund.

Keith Atkinson, a former pilot for Iranian arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi, said his $72,000-a-year job with Indianapolis-based Superior Training Services Inc. ended when he refused to donate $500 a month from his paycheck to a fund for political candidates supported by the company, including former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart.

Seeks $1.25 Million

In his lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the corporate pilot is seeking $1.25 million in damages from the vocational training company, which runs schools for truck drivers and heavy equipment operators in Ontario, Sacramento and elsewhere throughout the country.

Atkinson, 43, alleges that he used the company's $6-million jet on at least five occasions to ferry Hart and his campaign workers to various political rallies during Hart's short-lived presidential campaign.

He said he flew numerous other trips throughout his 13 months with the company for a variety of other politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

Atkinson said in an interview that the chief executive officer of the company, Gary Eyler, a defendant in the lawsuit, "kept telling everybody, 'Hey, we gotta do this because in another year when Hart gets elected, we'll all be sitting at Camp David instead of sitting here every weekend.' "

"He was very brash about what he was doing and why he was doing it. He had great ambitions of being Gary Hart's right-hand man," Atkinson said.

Sent Letter

Company officials, in a letter to Atkinson's attorney, Maurice Mandel II, called Atkinson's allegations about the donation fund "absolutely ridiculous."

They said Atkinson was fired because of personality conflicts with other employees and because he damaged the tail section of the company jet while moving it out of a hangar.

It is a violation of federal election law to require employees to contribute to political action committees, according to Fred Eiland of the Federal Elections Commission.

Atkinson said in an interview that the dispute over political contributions arose when Eyler demanded that he attend a $250-a-plate fund-raiser held to retire Hart's campaign debt.

"I went, but I didn't pay. I said, 'I'm not kicking into the Democratic fund. I'm a Republican; I don't believe I should have to do that,' " he said. "There were little innuendoes about if it wasn't for our political connections, you wouldn't have the job you have right now."

Later, at a meeting in Eyler's office, he said, Eyler told him that all top-level management people at the company had agreed to payroll deductions for the company's political fund.

'Slush Fund'

"He turned to me and he says, 'You're expected to also have a deduction, a minimum of at least $250 coming out of your (bimonthly) paycheck, for this political contribution.' It was a slush fund that we all in upper management were supposed to contribute to."

He refused, and when he returned from vacation a few weeks later, Eyler told him it was "time for a change," he said.

Company Vice President Gregory Hahn, in a statement released Friday, said: "Mr. Atkinson was an employee for one year with the company as head of the aviation department, and as an executive, along with 60 other employees, he was asked to join a political action committee. Our PAC is based on hundreds of other companies who have the same type of committee for their executives to participate in."

Lou Gerig, a spokesman for the company, said no employees of the company are required to join the committee. Of 50 who are eligible to join, only 10 belong, he said.

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