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San Bernardino airport developer indicted on corruption charges

Scot Spencer is accused of conspiracy to commit grand theft and filing false documents for allegedly trying to siphon $1.75 million from the airport agency. Another man remains at large.

March 26, 2013|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Prosecutors say Scot Spencer and Felice Luciano duped members of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, who were working to transform the former base for civilian use.
Prosecutors say Scot Spencer and Felice Luciano duped members of the San… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The former lead developer of the oft-plagued San Bernardino International Airport was indicted for allegedly hatching a conspiracy to siphon $1.75 million from the public airport authority, prosecutors said Monday.

Developer Scot Spencer and one of his alleged investors, Felice G. Luciano, falsified the lease of an aircraft to the Democratic National Committee in the plot to collect the money, according to an indictment.

Spencer, 48, was arrested in Boca Raton, Fla., on Friday, and the San Bernardino County district attorney's office is seeking his extradition to California. Luciano remains at large.

Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos said his investigation into allegations of fraud at the airport — the former Norton Air Force Base — remains active.

Ramos said it appeared that Spencer and Luciano duped members of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, a panel of elected officials from the county and surrounding cities working to transform the base into civilian use.

"They took the passion of those people who wanted to turn it around and used that passion as their own piggy bank to live this lavish lifestyle of travel, of expensive items, over $1.2 million that they stole from these people that really wanted to do the job at San Bernardino International Airport," Ramos said at a news conference. "It's an unconscionable crime."

Along with conspiracy to commit grand theft, Spencer was charged with perjury and filing false documents. If convicted of all charges, Spencer and Luciano face up to five years in state prison, Ramos said.

The indictments are the latest blow to the ill-fated attempts to transform the base, which was shuttered in 1994.

In September 2011, the FBI raided the airport authority and the Inland Valley Development Agency in San Bernardino — agencies accused of rampant mismanagement and questionable financial oversight in a county grand jury investigation. Both agencies oversee the development of the airport.

Among the findings in the civil grand jury report was that Spencer received millions of dollars in questionable contracts from the airport authority. When brought in to develop the airport, Spencer already was a convicted felon who had served time in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud and was banned from the aviation industry by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales, an airport authority member, on Monday said redevelopment of the base has been critical to revitalizing the region's ailing economy. The effort succeeded in bringing millions of square feet of warehousing and logistics facilities to the base, but attempts to establish a successful civilian airport were undercut by Spencer, she said.

"Unfortunately, the unscrupulous business practices of Scot Spencer have tainted much of the good work done at the airport," Gonzales said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

When the airport authority learned of the investigation of Spencer, it did "everything legally possible to distance itself" from him, including terminating all contracts with Spencer's companies, hiring a new executive director and filing legal action against Spencer to recover funds he still owed the agency, she said.

According to the indictment, Spencer, through an attorney, in July 2008 filed a false claim with the airport authority for $1.75 million. Spencer alleged that two of his affiliated companies based at the airport were forced to cancel an aircraft lease agreement with the Democratic National Committee because of the airport's inability to provide a hangar, which his firms had a legal right to use.

In March 2010, Spencer met Luciano at the Blue Water Grill in New York City and had Luciano sign a false, backdated contract stating that one of Spencer's companies was leasing an aircraft to a company called Unique Aviation Properties, with in turn was leasing the plane to the DNC, the indictment stated. That falsified contract was then turned over to authorities investigating the airport's finances.

A.J. Wilson, the airport authority's interim executive director, said that after Spencer submitted his claim, the authority agreed to a settlement that amounted to more than $1 million. The authority has since taken legal action to recover the public funds, and provided evidence to the FBI, he said.

"We worked very hard over the last year to eliminate Mr. Spencer's presence from our airport," Wilson said.

DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said the political committee never leased any aircraft from Spencer or any companies named in the indictment.

The investigation of the airport was conducted by a special joint task force, including the U.S. attorney's office and FBI, set up in 2010 to deal with corruption allegations in San Bernardino County.

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