Saturday, January 20, 2001

Officials: Osprey commander admits he
asked subordinates to falsify records

By Robert Burns
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The commander of the Marine Corps’ only Osprey aircraft squadron has admitted to superiors that he told subordinates to falsify maintenance records, three senior Marine Corps officials said Friday.

The admission raises the possibility of criminal charges against the officer, Lt. Col. Odin Fred Leberman, although Marine Corps officials said Friday that no decision had been made to start a criminal investigation.

The Marine Corps inspector general began interviewing members of Leberman’s squadron Thursday at their Osprey base, the Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. He will report his findings to other officers in the chain of command, and they will decide whether to start a criminal proceeding.

Leberman was relieved of command Thursday, nearly a week after an unsigned letter and an audio tape were delivered anonymously to the office of the secretary of the Navy on Jan. 12 and forwarded to Marine Corps headquarters. The letter accuses Leberman of directing his subordinates to "lie about aircraft reporting."

"What we have been doing is reporting aircraft that are down, as in they can’t fly, as being up, as in full mission capable," the letter said, adding that this had been the practice for more than two years.

One day after the letter and tape were received, Leberman was confronted by superiors at New River. "He admitted that he had done essentially what was on the tape," one senior official said.

The senior officials discussed the matter on condition they not be identified.

Leberman, who has been in the Marines since 1980, has not commented publicly since the allegations surfaced. Maj. James Bell, a spokesman at the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, N.C., said Leberman told him Friday in response to an Associated Press request for an interview: "Right now, in light of the investigation, I would prefer not to comment to the media at this time."

Defense Secretary William Cohen declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations.

"If they prove to be true, that would be a very serious charge, certainly. And it would have consequences, certainly, for the individuals involved," Cohen said when asked at a news conference on another topic.

At a Pentagon news conference, Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, the head of Marine Corps aviation, told reporters he has no doubt that the alleged falsification of maintenance data played no role in either of two Osprey crashes last year that killed 23 Marines.

"Based on all the information we have at this time, we see no relationship," McCorkle said.

McCorkle said an investigation of the cause of the Dec. 11 Osprey crash in North Carolina, which killed four Marines, is "99 percent complete." It concludes that the crash was caused by a failure of the aircraft’s hydraulics system, followed by software errors that made the Osprey unflyable.

The last words from the Osprey crew were, "Emergency. We’re going down. We’re going down," McCorkle said.

The Marine Corps on Friday released copies of the unsigned letter accusing Leberman. It was written by a person — believed to be a member of Leberman’s squadron — who described himself as a mechanic with two years of experience with the Osprey.

"Maintainers are being told they have to lie on maintenance records to make the numbers look good," the letter said. "This is not what caused the previous two mishaps this year, but if it continues it will cause many more." It went on to cite "an attitude that we have to have the plane whether or not it is ready."

The letter writer also provided an audio tape, allegedly of Leberman telling his subordinates to lie about the maintenance records. An unidentified man’s voice — allegedly Leberman’s — can be heard saying that Osprey flight readiness records must be falsified because "this program is in jeopardy."

Leberman made the admission Jan. 13 to his immediate superior, a colonel who in turn passed the word to Maj. Gen. Dennis Krupp, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. Krupp relieved Leberman of duty as squadron commander on Thursday, the same day the Marine Corps inspector general arrived at New River to launch an investigation of the squadron.

Leberman, 45, had commanded the training squadron at New River since June 1999.

Calls to New River, where Leberman is based, to seek comment from him were not returned.

Leberman spoke at a memorial Dec. 15 for the four Marines who died in the crash near Jacksonville, N.C., saying each victim contributed to developing the Osprey.

"They were all patriots of their country," Leberman said.

"They have done the hard job their country has asked them to do."

The Osprey, which uses tilt-rotor technology to take off and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane, has come under intense fire from critics, including some members of Congress, since one crashed last April in Arizona, killing all 19 Marines aboard. Investigators blamed it on human error.

The manufacturers are Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron.