In 9/11 glare hid another visa tale
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
After two hijackers trained at Huffman Aviation, its owner played the wronged good guy. But he has his own story.
Published July 25, 2004
NAPLES - In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rudi Dekkers was a man in the spotlight.
Dekkers owned one of the Florida flight schools that trained Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, pilots of the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center. The talkative Dekkers gave so many interviews, "I was the worst paid anchor in the world," he said on the one-year anniversary. "I'm always on television somewhere."
Ruddy and affable, Dekkers portrayed himself as an upstanding businessman who had done everything by the book, only to see his own companies ruined by the attacks. He criticized the government for not doing a better job of screening foreign citizens entering the United States.
But now a complicated picture has emerged of Dekkers himself, a Dutch citizen who seems to have benefited from the same type of casual scrutiny of visa applicants that let the 9/11 hijackers live and train here.
After moving to Florida in 1992, Dekkers got a visa designed for investors with "substantial" capital, even though he had a bankrupt company in Holland. And for the past year, he has remained in the United States on a coveted H-1B visa that is supposed to be issued only to foreigners who have specialized skills and work exclusively for a U.S. employer.
Dekkers would not say who he is working for or what he is doing. It is not clear how he qualified for his current visa, since he also is running his own plane-leasing company, despite regulations that experts say bar H-1B visa holders from self-employment.
"I don't want to tell the whole world what I'm doing and not doing," he said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "There are certain things I promised other people not to talk about because these people who helped me got harassed, too."
Even before 9/11, Dekkers had a long history of troubled businesses, run-ins with the Federal Aviation Administration and numerous lawsuits, including one in which he paid $15,000 to a female employee who accused him of "severe" sexual harassment. It is the kind of checkered history, experts say, that should have raised questions both before and after the 9/11 attacks about Dekkers' fitness to run a school that trained pilots.
"You would think that everyone surrounding that should have been scrutinized," says Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "A flight school, unlike a beautician, represents a problem in that you have technical training that facilitates terrorism. You want to make sure that it is well run, so you look into the backgrounds of people."
No one suggests Dekkers knew what Atta and al-Shehhi were planning, and Dekkers says he would have "killed them with my bare hands if I had any clue what these animals were up to." But many who have had dealings with him describe him as pushy and arrogant, a man with recurrent financial problems who doesn't always play by the rules.
"I'm not saying he would sell his soul, but he is very aggressive," says Robert Larson, director of operations at the Naples Airport Authority.
Dekkers, 47, continues to drive expensive vehicles and live in a million-dollar waterfront home, even though a Naples lawyer had "to chase him around" to get him to pay a $359 judgment.
In the interview, Dekkers dismissed most of the criticism and legal action against him as either unwarranted or overblown. His biggest mistakes, he says, were "trying to grow too fast" and moving to a country where people sue at the drop of a hat.
"I'm not the luckiest guy in the world," he says, "but I'm more lucky than some because I have kids and they didn't die" on 9/11.
"It was a bad time'
In 1985, Dekkers started a computer company in Holland that went bankrupt five years later. He says every bill was paid except one, to a creditor "I never wanted to pay because he didn't deserve it."
As a result, Dekkers was hit with a judgment that has since swelled, with interest, to more than $200,000.
In 1992, Dekkers moved his family to Naples after visiting the wealthy Gulf Coast city on a plane-buying trip. A year or so later, he says, he got an E-2 investor visa, issued to noncitizens who make a substantial investment in a U.S. enterprise.
The idea is to create jobs for Americans, but such visas are relatively easy to get, experts say.
"There is not much of an inquiry made to the investor's past," says Ramon Carrion, an immigration lawyer in Clearwater. "The fact a person may have a business that went under in the past is not necessarily of interest to the government when he makes a new investment in the U.S. They'll give him the benefit of the doubt."
Dekkers says he qualified for an investor visa because he started a new company, International Computer Products USA, to export computer chips to Holland. But his own investment funds were so limited, he borrowed from an unusual source: a young widow with three children who loaned him $140,000 on a handshake.
In a deposition, Sandra Marra said Dekkers talked her into investing in his company in 1994 on the promise she would get a return of $3,500 a month.
"He made it a sure thing, that it was very low risk," she said.
Less than a year later, Marra said, her monthly payments began to dry up and Dekkers told her he had lost $240,000 because an employee had stolen a shipment of computer chips. Marra sued, but the case was dismissed because she didn't pursue it: In her 1998 deposition, Marra said she was down to $188 in the bank.
Dekkers was also sued by the Georgia company from which he had bought the chips on credit. He says he sold his house to settle that debt, plus pay back everything he owed Marra. She could not be reached for comment.
"I didn't anticipate somebody would steal from me," he says. "I lost all my money. It was a bad time. I bought a cheaper house. I quit the computer business."
Even as his computer company was struggling, Dekkers started Ambassador Airways. Based at the Naples airport, it included aircraft maintenance, plane leasing and pilot training.
Dekkers' relations with the airport were not always smooth. In 1997, executive director Theodore Soliday threatened to report him to the FAA for leaving a helicopter running unattended in gusty winds.
While the airport wanted to work with Dekkers to expand his business, "I must tell you that it is very difficult if we cannot get you to play by the rules," Soliday wrote.
Moreover, Dekkers was so late on his some of bills that the airport at one point refused to sell him aviation fuel even if he paid cash.
"I never paid bills on time and they hated me for that," he says. "They picked on me all the time. Sometimes they were just going overboard."
In 1999, the FAA cited Dekkers for several violations, including "operating an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner." The FAA report is not public, but Dekkers describes the incident as a minor one in which he didn't notify the Naples control tower as soon as he should have on approach from Miami. Records show his pilot's license was suspended for 45 days, a severe penalty.
It was through the Naples airport that Dekkers met the multimillionaire who would become his benefactor and partner: Wallace J. Hilliard. A prominent Green Bay, Wis., executive - a local library is named for him - Hilliard co-founded an insurance company, American Medical Security, whose shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Hilliard, a private pilot, retired to Naples and began renting planes from Dekkers. The two became friends, and in 1999, Hilliard loaned Dekkers $1.7-million to buy Huffman Aviation at the airport in Venice, 100 miles up the road.
Although his Ambassador Airways was struggling, Dekkers thought he could do better with Huffman because it had a restaurant and a lucrative aviation fuel concession. "Fuel makes money," he says.
Dekkers also had big plans for Huffman's flight school, including a $60,000-a-year ad campaign to lure student pilots from Germany and other European countries.
"That's our goal - to get people to come here from all over the world," he told a local newspaper.
In July 2000, two foreigners walked through the door: Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, both of whom had lived in Germany. Atta had a private pilot's license and wanted a commercial license; al-Shehhi wanted both. As he later testified to Congress, Dekkers told them the cost per person would be about $18,000. He also told them they could start lessons, but would have to apply for student visas. Atta had a business visa and al-Shehhi only a tourist visa.
The men were just weeks into their training when the chief flight instructor complained they had "bad attitudes and behavioral problems," and asked Dekkers if it would be "acceptable" to expel them. Dekkers said their conduct changed after warnings, and they were allowed to stay.
"They were able to continue their lessons without any further problems throughout the course," he told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 2002.
That, however, is not exactly what the 9/11 Commission found. Its report, released last week, said the men left Huffman in September and enrolled at a flight school in Sarasota. An instructor there also complained the two were "aggressive, rude and sometimes even fought with him" to take controls during training flights. After they failed an exam, they said they were going home; instead they re-enrolled at Huffman Aviation.
While the two Arab students were coming and going, Dekkers and Hilliard were busy with an ambitious project: starting an airline.
The plan was to resurrect Sunrise Airlines, a bankrupt Arizona carrier, move most of its operations to Florida and offer service from Sarasota to Tallahassee and other cities. Dekkers was supposed to lease planes to the new airline, have a substantial ownership interest and play a senior management role.
There was one big problem: Federal law requires U.S. airlines to be substantially owned and controlled by U.S. citizens. The fact that Dekkers, a foreigner, intended to play such a major role in Sunrise concerned both the U.S. Department of Transportation and Eugene Gillespie, a corporate turnaround expert hired as Sunrise's chief executive officer.
Dekkers "had previous run-ins with the regulatory authorities, and I didn't feel that he needed to be anywhere near that airline," Gillespie says.
Dekkers severed his ties to Sunrise, and the DOT allowed it to resume operations. But authority was limited to one year; the DOT worried that "the failure to fully and accurately disclose significant information" about the reborn airline, including Dekkers' initial involvement, raised doubts about Sunrise's future compliance with federal regulations.
The airline flew for a few weeks, but never really got off the ground. The DOT eventually revoked its operating authority.
"To break me'
In December 2000, Atta and al-Shehhi successfully finished their training. There was a bizarre incident that Christmas Eve: They rented a plane from Huffman Aviation, flew to Miami and abandoned the plane on a taxiway at Miami International Airport when the engine stalled. They wanted Dekkers to pay their cab fare back to Venice; he refused.
Dekkers says he heard nothing more about them until Sept. 11. Early the next day, the FBI descended on Huffman and pored through its records on the men. According to his congressional testimony, Dekkers turned over files on more than 100 other students, including several Muslims.
Dekkers also told agents he owned a second flight school in Naples, which had a few Muslim students, but the FBI didn't seem interested. Agents only took some Huffman files.
Six months after the attacks, Dekkers opened his mail to find the student visas for the now-dead pilots. The timing sparked blistering criticism of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but Dekkers said he was relieved because it proved his company had followed procedure on the visas.
"It was not the flight school industry that made a mistake," he told the Naples Daily News. "The government made the mistake of not tracking these people down."
But as the aviation industry reeled from the attacks, Dekkers' schools, which had trained 1,000 students before 9/11, saw a plunge in business. The Naples school closed soon after the hijackings. Dekkers tried to keep Huffman Aviation going by applying for a federal loan, but the application was rejected. One reason: his poor track record at the Venice airport where, as in Naples, he was chronically late on his rent.
In early 2003, Dekkers sold Huffman. That sale, along with problems with Sunrise Airlines, resulted in a tangle of litigation. Hilliard claimed Dekkers owed him millions of dollars, including $750,000 on Dekkers' new waterfront home in Bonita Springs.
Dekkers filed a counterclaim, alleging Hilliard had taken advantage of him in the Sunrise deal. Both men, along with their companies, have also been sued by numerous others.
Dekkers says he got conventional loans and repaid Hilliard everything he owed him. But Hilliard, 72, was confused about many of their transactions, he maintains.
"He came into my life and helped me big time. I think we're still in our hearts friends, but I didn't want to do business with him anymore. He has a problem - he forgets, he thinks everybody around him is taking advantage of him."
Hilliard says he got back no more than 30 cents on the dollar. Otherwise, he declined to talk about Dekkers because "my personal relationship with him was unfortunate."
In the past two years, Dekkers has continued to have problems. The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet completed its investigation into a January 2003 incident in which he crashed a helicopter in Fort Myers. Although Dekkers was only slightly injured, the $150,000 chopper - which he says was uninsured - was a total loss.
The same month, the Sarasota County State Attorney's Office filed a criminal fraud charge against Dekkers stemming from the sale of Huffman Aviation. The charge - which he claims grew out of Hilliard's attempts "to break me" - was later dropped.
And the U.S. government is seeking $235,000 in civil penalties from two companies in which Dekkers and Hilliard were directors, alleging the companies operated some 20 passenger-carrying flights without FAA authority. Dekkers says he had nothing to do with the flights, which included LearJet runs to Aspen, Colo., and New York's JFK airport.
Now that he and Hilliard have parted company, Dekkers has gone into the growing business of "fractional ownership" of airplanes. Buyers are entitled to use a plane for certain blocs of time, similar to time shares in real estate.
Dekkers says he has a twin-engine Beechcraft Duke with "four or five" fractional owners. He says he is also working for an unidentified employer, making $60,000 a year in an aviation-related capacity.
"I've had years of financial stress - that's why I work for someone else now. I do also have my own company, and it's not easy."
Last year, Dekkers says, he changed his status from an investor visa to an H-1B visa, issued to noncitizens who are sponsored by a U.S. employer to fill specialized, high-skill jobs. Experts in immigration law say it is hard to see how Dekkers qualified for an H-1B visa if he is also working for himself; the holders of such visas cannot sponsor themselves, which bars self-employment.
"What it shows you is that the Department of Homeland Security isn't checking very closely into these applications," says Jessica Vaughan, a former U.S. consular official and now senior policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies."They make very little attempt, if any, to verify information."
Moreover, Vaughan says, investigations can be instigated only when the government receives a complaint, even if the application "seems fishy" from the start.
"That's one of the huge weaknesses in this whole guest worker program," she says.
Carrion, the Clearwater immigration lawyer, also finds it hard to see how Dekkers could have an H-1B visa while also working for himself.
"It doesn't sound kosher," Carrion says. "The H-1B requires a person to be employed by a U.S. company and does not provide for self-employment."
Once again, Dekkers is operating his business out of the Naples Airport. One thing hasn't changed since he first opened shop there nearly a decade ago: Airport officials say he is late on his $540-a-month rent.
- Times researchers Cathy Wos, Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this story, which also contains information from "Welcome to Terrorland: Mohamed Atta & the 9-11 Cover-up in Florida" by Daniel Hopsicker. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com
[Last modified July 24, 2004, 23:58:05]
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