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Mon, Oct 10, 2011

No Good Deed Ever Goes Unpunished: Taking On The Cirrus Fiasco, Part 2

You Have Enemies? Good. That Means You've Stood Up For Something, Sometime In Your Life -- Winston Churchill

News/Analysis/Observations by ANN CEO/Editor-In-Chief, Jim Campbell

In Case You Missed It: Part One

On August 19th, just about when we thought the situation had gotten about as out of control as it could have gone, Cirrus struck again -- and did so in a way that still staggers us with its malevolence--and foolishness. After a long night writing, in which I indulged in the luxury of sleeping in a bit (having written through to nearly 8 o'clock in the morning before catching a bit of sleep), I received an urgent phone call from my FBO at the St. Augustine airport in St. Augustine, Florida. The FBO manager, an old friend and long-term business associate, called me to ask whether or not I had authorized a Cirrus Aircraft employee, John Strohl, to perform maintenance on my airplane.

A little groggy, initially, I soon became aware that Cirrus' Southeast Field Service Manager, John Strohl, had presented himself on the airport ramp at my home FBO, reportedly told personnel there that he was going to be performing maintenance on my airplane, and directed that the airplane be removed from the west side of the airport where the FBO was positioned, to the east side of the field near the Cirrus service center at Southeast Aero.

I panicked.

I told the Manager, in no uncertain terms, that I had given Strohl no permission to be anywhere near my airplane, that I feared for the airplane’s well-being and safety, and that the matter was obviously one that required immediate police intervention. I also opined that the longer the airplane remained in Strohl’s control, the more certain I was that no good could become of it.

The FBO manager was incensed with the deception.

Angry at having been so deceived, he had one of his line personnel take the tug over to the other side of the airport where he hooked up the airplane and brought it back to where it was normally hangared. He also positioned his own airplane in front of it so as to protect it. In the meantime, I set out to the St. Augustine airport, and called the St. Johns County Sheriff while enroute. In explaining that I believed an aircraft theft was occurring, the woman at the Sheriff's office that I spoke to indicated immediate concern and put me on hold temporarily while she researched what to do with my report. Within a minute or so, she got back on the phone and indicated to me that someone from "Cirrus Air" had called the Sheriff and said that they had the paperwork to repossess an airplane and would be dropping it off at the Sheriff's office. I was left with the impression at that time that some kind of paperwork had been left with them, and was later told by other officials with the St. Johns County Sheriff that they thought that paperwork had been given to them to authorize an aircraft repossession.

I was stunned. Not only was there no reason for Cirrus to repossess my airplane, I had received no notification from Cirrus indicating any such intention, and the plain fact of the matter is they owed me a considerable amount of money, far more than would have been owed on the airplane then or at any time in the foreseeable future. And of course, Cirrus owed me a considerable amount of bucks on a contract that they were in clear violation of. As a matter of fact, the last time we had looked at Cirrus’ potential indebtedness to ANN, encompassing the full value of the contract that they had defaulted on, the amount was pushing $700,000. In other words, Cirrus owed me a hell of a lot more money then they could possibly think was owed to them. And more important, they knew they owed us money, they admitted they owed us money, they refused to pay us the money they knew they owed, and via a number of personnel and circumstances, were engaging in what appeared to us to be overtly extortionate behavior in order to seek our obedience and silence.

With the limited info we had by then, I explained to the Sheriff's office that there could not possibly be a legal repossession under way. I opined that we had no notification that any such thing was anticipated or allowed, that we did not owe Cirrus anything, and that a felony theft was probably occurring. I made it clear that we had been threatened extensively by Cirrus, that we considered this to be a serious federal matter and that there were a number of verifiable actions on the part of Cirrus that called into question the legality of anything they could possibly be doing. Thereafter; I requested that a Sheriff's officer meet me at St. Augustine airport as soon as possible. The Sheriff's office indicated that they would be dispatching somebody quickly and while I was on the way to St. Augustine, I called Cirrus employee John Strohl (whom I had met previously way back when Cirrus was still honoring our warranty), and still had his work and cell phone numbers on file. I left him a message indicating that his actions were objectionable, probably illegal, and had no basis in fact… and that I had called the police. I also made it clear that I would prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law unless he stopped what he was doing right away and met with me and the police at KSGJ. By the time I arrived at the airport, the FBO Boss proved to be good to his word, and had recovered our Cirrus, and upon inspection we noticed that the aircraft had been disabled and tampered with (in part) via the presence of a prop lock, and other as yet unknown actions. During a quick conversation with the FBO manager, he ruefully reported that the Sheriff's office had criticized him for getting involved in a ‘civil dispute’ but since he and I had been friends for quite some time, he was well aware of the previous threats to me by Cirrus and my concern that at some point they may take harmful action against myself or my airplane. A Sheriff's Detective arrived on scene shortly after I was able to contact John Strohl directly by phone, demanding that he remove the prop lock and repair any damage that may have occurred to the airplane while it was under his control. Strohl appeared very nervous based on the quality of his voice, and promised to come back to the airport to remove the prop lock and restore the aircraft to flyable status.

I spoke to the St. Johns County Sheriff's Detective, for quite a while, explaining some of the things that had occurred in our tempestuous relationship with Cirrus, showing him copies of some of the e-mails and threats that we had received, as well as relating to him the extraordinary threats, harassment, and intimidation we had been subjected to by Cirrus Aircraft. We also related to him that we were not the first person at the St. Augustine airport to have to deal with fears of Cirrus Aircraft retribution, relating to him the difficulties that airshow pilot Patty Wagstaff had in getting paid by Cirrus and the bizarre turmoil that resulted.

As we spoke to the SJSO, John Strohl reached him by phone, and explained that he was not coming back to the airport despite his promises to me and to other Sheriff's personnel, and that we would also not be taking the prop lock off the airplane -- as he feared arrest. We filed a criminal complaint with the Detective based on the false and fraudulent statements made by Strohl, the movement of our aircraft without our permission, and the fact that there turned out to be no paperwork authorizing a repossession. We ascertained that after some confusion, that the Sheriff's office never received anything in the way of legal paperwork, and that Strohl had nothing of the kind despite his assertions to the contrary. In contacting one of my attorneys, later in the day, I was informed that they had received a Federal Express package at their office threatening the repossession of my aircraft and naming a deadline that was still nearly a week away – with the action being based on terms referred to in the promissory note that we described earlier. Mind you, this is the same promissory note that contains several verifiable errors in fact, is of dubious credibility, and more important, one I did not sign or agree to.

While working through the initial report to the SJSO, I also received a call from a former senior staffer for Cirrus Design. She reported to me that she has received an email from an aviation blogger that was inquiring about what she knew about the reported repossession of my aircraft based on a tip the blogger had just received… if I have the chronology right, she received this inquiry before I knew about Cirrus’s attempt to abscond with my airplane… and possibly even before they completed the action! It was obvious that someone had ratcheted up the disinformation campaign, and was trying to cast us in a pretty negative light – though nothing as substantive as real facts were going to get in the way of that aim… I contacted the blogger, who refused to explain the circumstances under which he made his inquiry, while I explained to him that if he had questions about my airplane, that he needed to talk to me in order to get a complete picture of the situation. He didn’t sound interested in the details when it became clear that I was still in possession of my airplane.

In undertaking an inventory of my aircraft, externally and internally, early that evening (and after the shock started wearing off), I discovered that a flight case that had been put in the airplane the night before, was missing. The flight case used to serve as a repository for all my logbooks and associated aircraft paperwork and was marked with a big tag on its handle that said ‘N377SR.’ Some months before, I had separated the various logs into smaller satchels as we had done so much avionics work in upgrading our airplane to Avidyne’s R9 system, and had a separate small satchel (each) for the airframe, the avionics, and the power plant. While the flight case used to contain the aircraft logs, it now contained my "portable journalism kit" with a laptop, a couple of small HD cameras, portable hard drives, audio gear, some lenses, and things of that nature. It also contained a number of personal items including a manila envelope with pictures from the rehearsal dinner and my wedding to Vicki many years before…

I had put the envelope in the case the night before and then put the case in the airplane in anticipation of a trip over the weekend on business, where I would be stopping to see family along the way, and with the intention to spend a little bit of time with them on August 22nd -- which was the second anniversary of Vicki's death – a day that still holds some serious emotional impact in my life. Many of the photos in the envelope were unique and not shot by me… many of them given to me, with love by friends and relatives, and were irreplaceable since I did not have the negatives and since many years have come and gone since then, the negatives are probably long gone. So… the loss of those photos is a considerable personal heartbreak. We filed an immediate theft report with the St. Johns County Sheriff, noting that the case had been placed in the aircraft sometime late Thursday, and upon our recovery (from its removal Friday morning) and my inspection Friday afternoon, the case was found to be missing. When Strohl was questioned by the SJSO as to the missing case, he claimed no knowledge of it and despite being the Cirrus Southeast Field Service Manager, Strohl told the cops that he had no way of getting into the aircraft to access the baggage compartment -- where the case was last seen. Consultations with Cirrus officials, past and present, confirm the fact that there are reportedly only a limited number of keys that fit the entire group of Cirrus Aircraft, and I have heard a number of stories of people who had lost their keys and gone to a service center – whereby a set of common keys to Cirrus Aircraft was obtained, and they managed to get access to the aircraft successfully each time… Casting severe doubt on Strohl's testimony (that he had no way to get into my airplane) if, in fact, he had attempted to do so, the Detective, upon researching the matter, admitted to me via e-mail that he thought Strohl’s statement was questionable.

In the time since the rude awakening of August 19th, ANN has been advised to take aggressive actions to protect our aircraft against further tampering, damage and theft… and we have done so. This has severely limited our ability to use it, and we have a justifiable fear that any time it's out in the open, that the potential for theft or further tampering is extreme. As a result, we’ve become somewhat paranoid about its utilization. That's creating serious difficulties in our ability to get business done. Further; Strohl continues to assert no knowledge of the whereabouts of the flight case that disappeared from my airplane between late in the day of August 18th and August 19th. An attorney representing both he and Cirrus Aircraft has threatened me and warned me to refrain from stating that he is responsible for its disappearance. Since I didn't see its theft, and the aircraft was outside of my control, or the control and observation of people I trust for a considerable period of time on August 19th, I have no way to know what happened to that case. While the value of the items stolen, in regards to the equipment contained within is nearly $10,000, the value of that envelope with the precious pictures of Vicki, is priceless. At this point, I have little hope that they will be recovered, and believe that whoever took the case may have thought that they were taking the logbooks, if they didn’t look inside first. I understand that it will be difficult for anybody associated with its theft to return it without implicating themselves.

I will be happy to assert publicly, here and now, that in the event that the case is returned to me, I will not participate in the prosecution of anyone who aids in its return, for its theft.

So… Cirrus has attempted to create a quagmire out of the legal issues involved here, despite having no writ, no legal documents, and none of the paperwork and documentation normally associated with a repossession, and certainly no apparent right to insist that a repossession is proper anyway. What appears to have happened, is that at the direction of Cirrus Aircraft, a Cirrus employee made a number of false statements while following directions to take control of my airplane, and that this action was the latest in an extensive and continuing series of extortionate, harassing and intimidating actions and attempts to silence myself and ANN.

ANN is fortunate to have the advice of three exceptional aviators who are also attorneys, and as of this writing, a lawsuit has been authorized against Cirrus Aircraft and may, in fact, be served upon them by the time you read this. I have attempted, at all times, to take a less than aggressive approach to this because (quite frankly) the minute things get to the point where they need lawyers, the only sure winners are the attorneys themselves. But with the extensive history of Cirrus threats, misinformation, intimidation, interference, harassment, and other actions against ANN (as well as other persons and companies), I have little doubt that we will (at some point) prevail. But I also know that the legal system can be circuitous, ponderous, and to say the least… complex. My saving grace in this matter is the fact that the legal team that I'm working with are all friends, all quite accomplished in the legal profession, and all very well aware of the current situation at Cirrus -- and under no illusions about the lack of integrity of this company. ANN has submitted reports to the St. Johns County Sheriff, the FAA, the TSA, and the FBI, and actions are being pursued with all of these agencies. The AIC that we spoke to at the FBI was looking at the case from two standpoints… financial fraud and counter-terrorism. We have also received a request from, and have been cooperating with, the Financial Crimes unit at the Duluth PD, in Duluth, MN. The SJSO currently has an open investigation into the thefts that occurred at the St. Augustine Airport on or about August 19th. Three congressional offices are being consulted about these and associated details with an eye toward defining the involvement of the Chinese government in the pattern terrorism that has targeted ANN. Other agencies are being consulted, as well.

It is our intention to pursue every avenue, civil and criminal, to seek an end to the terrorism that ANN has experienced, and terminate any further harm to our company.

Several weeks ago, if our reports are correct, the Chinese/CAIGA became better informed as to some of the issues at Cirrus and both CAIGA and Brent Wouters parted ways. Numerous reports indicate that Wouters did not go willingly, and the language announcing that he was no longer CEO certainly suggests it was not a pleasant parting. People within Cirrus have reported to us that some of the things that he did to us may have brought about his downfall, but we really don't know that to be true. What we do know is this… Dale Klapmeier took over as CEO of Cirrus Aircraft just days ago. At the 2011 AOPA event, Dale Klapmeier approached one of our lawyers, and attempted to discuss the difficulties between Cirrus and ANN. Our counsel informed Mr. Klapmeier that he could not ethically engage in a conversation without his Cirrus attorney being present -- whereupon Mr. Klapmeier responded that he understood that, and that he would speak -- and our counsel could listen -- Klapmeier indicated that he wanted to open a dialogue with us, made some statements that seemed to indicate that he disagreed with and condemned the attacks of August 19th, and seemed to appear to want to distance himself from the activities of Cirrus Aircraft while it was under the direction of Brent Wouters. He invited us to contact him, and in accordance with proper ethical precepts, one of our lawyers has made the appropriate ethical inquiries with Cirrus counsel to start the dialogue that Klapmeier (pictured below) suggested. Over half a dozen attempts have been made and Cirrus has not responded – at all. We have no idea why Dale would initiate a conversation even while seemingly making statements that were prejudicial to his own legal situation, and then fail to respond to a scenario that he had invited -- but if Cirrus was interested in trying to put this matter behind them and get the Brent Wouters debacle out of their system, it would seem they have a golden opportunity to erect a line of demarcation between the bad old days and what might be/could be better days ahead. But, for some reason they have failed to do so… And after several weeks of screwing with this, we have no reason but to believe that they have no intention to set on a more positive path. And so we must protect ourselves.

At this time I can tell you in no uncertain terms that ANN has been hurt quite a bit by all this, the current invoice to Cirrus Aircraft in regards to what they owe us directly (at this point) is just short of $170K. The overall indebtedness, based on the value of the contract, and a number of associated issues is probably a bit over $700,000. And as far as damages are concerned… taking the effect of the interference in our business, intimidation of our sponsors, the intimidation of myself and my staff, the harmful effects on my business, and so many other factors…

Well… that's up to a court and a jury to decide.

The Fallout

And yet there is another cost… This is been a very stressful period of time… I’m amazed that I don’t have a raging ulcer. I’ve lost count of the sleepless nights… I've lost count of the worries... I've lost count of the concerns… I've lost count of all the things that has made my life/mission a lot less pleasant -- due to my concern for the safety and well-being of my staff, the continuation of my mission here at ANN, and my ability to do my job to the point where I can look you all straight in the face and say I'm doing my very best. However; the sad fact of the matter is this… While we remain the victim of such awful tactics, our best is not good enough and for that I sincerely apologize and hope to do better somehow, someway, sometime… soon.

But let me make this clear -- NO, I'm not beat, I've just been slowed down. And as soon as we can deal with the ceaseless drag of this incessant harassment, we can get back up to speed and show you how good our best really is.

In the meantime, I will tell you this. Yes… we got screwed. We’re hurting a bit. But our head has been held high and still is… And despite the harm that's been done to us, we’re not remotely at risk of being killed off. We have the ability to work very efficiently, even more so, if we need to, and to stay on mission despite the horrendous amount of damage that's been done. We’re in for some tough times, and the saddest part of all this is that, had we had received all that we were owed, that the many new things that we've been able to offer you this year at ANN would have been magnified tenfold, and we would've been able to be far more successful in not only bringing you a better ANN, but in helping to build a better aviation for us all.

Cirrus' selfish and unethical actions have damaged ANN, damaged our efforts to help the industry, damaged our personal lives, and damaged our ability to be of greater service to you. And like I said, we’re hurt but we’re not broken, we've been damaged but we have not been stopped, we are bruised but we are not beaten. But... we'd sure like to get back to business.

For now; we have some obstacles ahead of us that need to be dealt with. We are operating ANN in a very lean and mean fashion in order to deal with the tremendous financial harm that Cirrus has exacted upon us. But the upcoming legal fight will not be cheap, and despite the advantage of working with trusted friends and associates who are being very reasonable in regards to our legal costs, we have no doubt that there are tremendous expenses to come if Cirrus continues their current course of harassment. We've been here before, having to fight a tough foe whom we thought was not acting ethically, responsibly or even legally, and back then the establishment of a legal fund to help us emerge victorious after some pretty intimidating attacks was of inestimable value. And so I'm going to open that door again, and ask that those of you who value ANN, and value what we at Aero-News try to do each and every day for you and on behalf of the industry that we hold so dear, think of us -- and if you feel so disposed, please contribute to a legal fund to help us put a stop to Cirrus’ continued intimidation and interference with ANN. If you do contribute to our legal fund, we ask that you contribute in the name of the Aero-News Network, and specifically note your donation as "ANN Legal Fund" via notation or memorandum, so that we may properly document each and every contribution.

In the meantime, we are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to make sure that we meet our obligations to you though some of them are a little harsh... seeing that we're the victim in all this... but the toughest blow of all is that I have been living happily on a lively little airpark for the last three years... the first time when a roof over my head felt like an actual home. I have come to love this place... but one of the sacrifices I may have to make is to leave this amazing place in order to conserve resources. I hope it doesn't come to this, but I want you to know in no uncertain terms that my mission and ANN come first. 

I must also note that we remain the proud owner of an SR22 G3 Turbo, we care a great deal for our aircraft and I have a particular affection for this airplane. I think it's one of the finest airplanes I've ever owned and I say that now even after everything we've been subjected to… However, I know I am not the only Cirrus owner who has problems with the company that produced my aircraft and know that I'm not the only one who is been a victim of abhorrent Cirrus behaviors. Simply put; I'm not the only one who loves the airplane but simply doesn't trust the company. I can recommend the airplane wholeheartedly, but in this day and age, where some great companies are struggling to survive and still manage not to be jerks and bastards in the process, I can't think of a single reason to recommend that anybody do business with Cirrus Aircraft until these behaviors are provably and irrevocably altered.

So... I won't.

Finally; let me add a few notes to clarify some points in Part One...Having a marketing agreement and selling advertising has NOTHING to do with the editorial side of the game--at least not at at ANN. The New York Times sells ads, the Wall Street Journal sells ads, CNN sells ads, thousands of media companies sell ads... and at no time should people confuse the fact that they need to sell advertising to keep the doors open and their staff employed -- with honest factual editorial. And believe you me... it was clear to all concerned that our editorial integrity was not and has NEVER been for sale. Alan understood that and Brent understood it... the difference between Alan and Brent is that Alan played by a code of ethics and Brent apparently did not. 

The saddest part of all, is that the story we've just related to you seems to be part of a pretty miserable pattern. As previously documented, we are not the only victim here... and over the past year, we have revealed some of the fine people and companies that earned Wouters/Cirrus displeasure. The repetitive pattern of breaking contracts, acting in a harassing and intimidating manner, misdirection, falsehood, badmouthing their opponents, and interfering with other businesses appears to have been undertaken several times. This industry is better than this...and for certain, it deserves better than this... and in the long run, that's all ANN tried to do when we took this story on... show you all what was wrong and attempt to provide the industry with the necessary information that might have sparked a better and more responsible path for all concerned. And no matter what's been done, we remain fully committed to that goal....

FMI: A 'Few' Stories From The Decline Of The Cirrus Empire:



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