Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Court sides with fired pilot who claimed state plane was operated unsafely



The state Department of Transportation looked into complaints by a former state pilot of safety lapses involving Nevada’s Cessna Citation, shown in 2006.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former Transportation Department pilot who said he was unjustly fired for raising red flags about the operation of the state plane.

Jim Richardson, of Carson City, said the Nevada Department of Transportation fired him in 2008 for blowing the whistle on unsafe operation of the state’s 10-seat Cessna Citation. The plane landed with only minutes of fuel left a number of times, took off overweight and was operated by a 14-year-old boy under the direction of the former chief pilot.

Some of these incidents happened while transporting top officials, including former Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Richardson lawyer, Jeff Blanck, said he expects Richardson to be reinstated as a pilot and receive 3 ½ years back pay, almost $250,000.

The state has maintained that Richardson was fired for not immediately reporting an incident, when an intern “over-revved” the plane’s engine.

Richardson admitted he made a mistake, but said the punishment was too harsh. In appealing his firing, Richardson argued that former Chief Pilot Gary Phillips had been merely demoted for the more serious safety violations.

NDOT said it was still pursuing its legal options. “We don’t agree with this judgment, and we are working with the Attorney General’s office and evaluating how to proceed,” according to a statement.

Richardson’s reinstatement “is supported by substantial evidence and is not arbitrary or capricious in any way,” according to the three-member decision. The order reversed District Court Judge Todd Russell’s ruling in 2009, which had found in favor of NDOT and allowed Richardson to be fired.

The case was remanded back to Russell.

The union that represents state workers had held up Richardson’s case as evidence that state workers need collective bargaining rights, a goal of state public employees for decades. After the administrative hearing officer said NDOT had to rehire Richardson, the department put him to work carrying 120-pound bags of rock, Richardson said, before the administrative judge clarified his decision that he had to be rehired as a pilot.

When Russell overturned that decision, it made the union’s case much less sympathetic.

“This was a blatant attempt by NDOT to retaliate against Mr. Richardson,” said Neil Lake, president of AFSCME Local 4041, which represents state workers.

Richardson, in an interview, said he was looking forward to getting back to work for the state.

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