High-Flying Long Beach Aviation Executive Fired After Starting Competing Company

May 28, 2024

May 26—A 50-year-old company that leases hangers and office space to more than 100 tenants at the Long Beach and Van Nuys airports has fired its longtime, nationally known chief executive officer, accusing him in a blistering lawsuit of using its employees and resources to enrich his competing consulting firm.

Curt Castagna, employed by Aeroplex/Aerolease Group since the early 1980s, breached his fiduciary duty and engaged in unfair competition by forming a separate consulting firm, Aeroplex Group Partners (AGP), according to the suit filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The complaint from Aeroplex/Aerolease, owned by the Milton Widelitz and George Arkin families, seeks unspecified damages.

Castagna, who is also president of the National Air Transportation Association based in Washington, D.C., and the Long Beach and Van Nuys airport associations, apparently didn't take it well when members of the Widelitz and Arkin families fired him on May 6.

"Castagna became visibly upset and aggressive upon hearing that he had been terminated from his positions with the Aeroplex/Aerolease Group," the suit states. "Although plaintiff's members informed Castagna that they desired to work together towards a peaceful separation, Castagna suggested that he would sue plaintiffs and would use plaintiffs' funds to pay for his lawsuit."

The decision to terminate Castagna wasn't easy, according to Stuart Pfeifer, a spokesperson for Aeroplex/Aerolease.

"Curt had been with Aeroplex/Aerolease quite a long time, and so there was a level of trust there," Pfeifer said. "But the partners wanted someone dedicated to their entities and not someone who kept adding outside interests."

National Air Transportation Association officials declined to comment on the lawsuit or Castagna's firing. Officials with the Long Beach Airport Association could not be reached for comment. Van Nuys Airport Association officials did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Company sabotaged

Castagna allegedly paralyzed Aeroplex/Aerolease by refusing access to information technology systems, removing backup computer server hard drives, locking the owners out of their offices, instructing employees to go home, refusing to provide key cards, and misappropriating equipment including a company-provided car, computer, and mobile phone.

In a news release, Castagna said he has "stepped away" from Aeroplex/Aerolease to focus on running AGP.

"I understand what has been presented in the litigation but the facts have to be sorted out," Castagna said in a phone interview. "There are details that continue to be unwound. My focus is on a smooth transition for all parties. My reputation speaks for itself. I am proud of the work I have done."

Meanwhile, Barry Rondinella, former director for John Wayne Airport in Orange County, has been hired to serve as Aeroplex/Aerolease's interim chief executive officer until a permanent replacement is found.

New firm surprised partners

The dispute with Castagna began in 2013, when, unbeknownst to Aeroplex/Aerolease, he reportedly used company funds to form AGP, which also manages airport hangars throughout Southern California.

According to the suit, AGP was created to compete with Aeroplex/Aerolease and siphon business away from the company.

Aeroplex/Aerolease shareholders first learned about AGP in 2015, when Castagna mentioned the company in a monthly report.

"When questioned about the previously undisclosed entity, he mollified the Arkin and Widelitz families' concerns by assuring them that they were majority owners of AGP and that the joint venture would be profitable for all," the suit states.

Then, in 2019 when AGP became profitable, Castagna allegedly demanded a bigger stake in AGP. Shareholders, feeling pressured to keep him happy, obliged.

Additional ownership interests in AGP were sold to to Castagna and his son, Justin, for pennies on the dollar, giving them an 80% stake in the company and leaving Aeroplex/Aerolease partners with just 20% ownership, even though Aeroplex/Aerolease was covering AGP's costs.

Meanwhile, Castagna allegedly expanded Aeroplex/Aerolease offices and utilized its supplies and employees for AGP's operations without providing fair compensation.

Castagna also began publicly branding Aeroplex/Aerolease Group as " Aeroplex Group Partners" with social media accounts and signage to sow confusion and represent the entities as a single business enterprise, according to the suit.

"Castagna was repeatedly instructed to maintain the companies' separateness and to cease holding out to the public that the companies were one and the same, but he refused to do so," the suit states.

Aeroplex/Aerolease partners were also irked that Castagna took a time-consuming job with the NATA, while still receiving "generous compensation" from the company.

"Curt was working 40 hours per week for NATA, their records show, spending a lot of time in Washington, working for AGP and other interests, and the partners felt that Aeroplex Aerolease Group was not his top priority," Pfeifer said.

According to NATA's Form 990 annual financial statement, Castagna was paid $50,000 in 2022. His Aeroplex/Aerolease salary was not disclosed.

The suit also alleges Castagna hired his children to work for AGP and paid them with Aeroplex/Aerolease funds. His daughter provides social media services for $5,000 a month.

The final straw

In January, Castagna allegedly threatened to resign from Aeroplex/Aerolease unless he was allowed to buy remaining ownership interests in AGP.

However, shareholders refused to be pressured and demanded that Castagna provide records to determine a valuation of their financial interests in AGP, says the suit. But the documents were never produced, the suit alleges.

Aeroplex/Aerolease also alleges Castagna used its funds to enrich himself, and, in one instance, received a 1.33% interest in a Van Nuys Airport project even though he did not contribute any capital.

After Castagna was fired from Aeroplex/Aerolease, his son — who also was terminated as the firm's chief operating officer —removed from the Long Beach headquarters several boxes believed to contain company records.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis A. Kin issued a temporary restraining order on behalf of Aeroplex/Aerolease enjoining Castagna from accessing or using the company's confidential, proprietary or trade secret information. Castagna has since returned some items to Aeroplex/Aerolease.

The dispute with Castagna has been a learning lesson for Aeroplex/Aerolease partners. "These families blindly trusted Mr. Castagna," Pfeifer said. "It's a cautionary tale about what can go wrong with unchecked power."

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