Executives Charged in Miami Airport Fuel Scheme

The president of a South Florida environmental cleanup company conspired to steal jet fuel from Miami International Airport -- and billed the county's aviation department for doing so, prosecutors charged in records obtained Monday.

Cliff Berry II, president of Cliff Berry Inc., was arrested Friday and charged with racketeering, conspiracy, organized fraud, grand theft and tampering with evidence.

He was arrested at the company's holiday party at the Sheraton on Griffin Road in Dania Beach.

The company's former environmental director, Jeff Smith, and Brian Schneir, the facilities maintenance supervisor for Aircraft Service International Group, the company that managed the airport fuel farm, were also charged. Schneir turned himself in Monday afternoon and Smith was expected to turn himself in on Thursday. Both had already been charged with separate racketeering cases involving the airport fuel farm.

Investigators detail an elaborate scheme involving the sale of stolen fuel to Haitian freighters, private jets and yacht owners docked at Key Biscayne. The alleged scam has led to 18 people and five companies being charged since July 2004 with crimes at the facility that distributes 50 million gallons of jet fuel every month to airliners.

The state attorney's office has also filed court papers to place a lien on the Northwest North River Drive facility that Cliff Berry Inc. owns in Miami.

''You have to hit them where it hurts, and for people like this, that's their pockets,'' said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

Cliff Berry Inc. was paid 13 cents a gallon to haul away rainwater contaminated with fuel at the fuel farm. But prosecutors charge the company would regularly pick up pure jet fuel and take it out of the airport compound in trucks that were supposedly carrying wastewater.

Then the company would charge the county as if wastewater had been removed. The amount of fuel stolen was ''far in excess of $100,000,'' the arrest affidavit states. It was unclear how much the county may have been overbilled for transporting contaminated rainwater.

A truck driver for Cliff Berry Inc. told investigators that he would take the oil to a special tank at the company's Northwest North River Drive facility. Smith controlled access to that tank, the arrest affidavit says.

Smith had the fuel loaded onto trucks owned by Costa Oil, a Medley company, that would then turn around and sell the fuel for cash to private jets using Opa-locka Airport and to yacht owners on Key Biscayne. The fuel was also sold to Haitian freighters, investigators say.

Luis Costa, owner of Costa Oil, told investigators that he sent an employee to pick up the fuel, according to court records. He said he dealt directly with 31-year-old Berry, with whom he shared the profits.

Costa has not been charged with a crime, but the arrest affidavit states he has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators.

Reached at his Medley office, Costa declined to talk about the case, other than to say that court records were wrong and that he had not agreed to cooperate with the state attorney's office or provide information about Berry.

''I don't have to explain anything,'' Costa said.

The county's inspector general and the state attorney's office first began looking into the fuel farm after the county's former aviation director, Angela Gittens, tipped them off to problems there in April 2003.

In June 2004, shortly before the first arrests, Smith told an employee at Cliff Berry Inc. to destroy any documents relating to Tank 7 where the fuel was being kept, arrest records charge.

Since the first charges were filed in the case in 2004, several of the people and companies involved have pleaded guilty, including a subsidiary of Aircraft Service International Group, the company where Schneir worked. ASIG Fueling Miami has agreed to repay the county $2.5 million.

Cliff Berry Inc. was charged last year with overbilling the county after investigators found the company had charged the county hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry off rainwater during months when it barely rained.

Larry Doyle, vice president of the family-owned company, said on Monday that he's confident the business will be cleared.

''These charges are without merit, and we look forward to go to court and prove our innocence,'' he said. ``It's been frustrating for us because it's been 18 months and we haven't had a chance to do that yet.''

Berry posted a $45,000 bond and was released from jail Friday.

Miami Herald

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