Buffalo-area members of Congress are seeking a Justice Department investigation of Colgan Air to determine whether its withholding of critical emails from federal safety investigators -- and an executive's contradictory statements under oath -- might be criminal offenses.
"We believe Colgan's failure to release these emails was disrespectful to the families, irresponsible to the flying public, and possibly criminal," the lawmakers said in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. "Therefore, we request an investigation into whether Colgan's actions constituted the intentional withholding of information sought by a federal agency and whether such actions violated federal law."
The letter, which the lawmakers sent Saturday, represents an unusually tough and unified rebuke of the airline that operated Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed in Clarence in February 2009, claiming 50 lives.
Internal company emails from August 2008 showed Colgan executives questioning the competence of Capt. Marvin D. Renslow, the pilot who eventually crashed Flight 3407 into the ground in an accident the National Transportation Safety Board blamed on pilot error.
"These communications appear to directly contradict statements made by those same Colgan officials just months later to the NTSB," said the letter.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both Democrats, joined the Buffalo area's three Democratic House members and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, in signing the letter.
Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, an Amherst Democrat whose district includes the Clarence crash site, spearheaded the effort to reach out to Holder. "We have to ensure that we protect the integrity of investigations into tragedies like 3407," Hochul said.
In a statement issued by company spokesman Joe F. Williams, Colgan said: "We are aware of the New York delegation members' concerns and will deliver a detailed response to them on Monday. As stated before, the information contained in the emails was shared with the NTSB investigators prior to and during testimony. Colgan was, and continues to be, fully cooperative with the NTSB."
Colgan did not, however, provide the word-for-word emails to the NTSB. Instead the emails surfaced as a part of a federal lawsuit in Buffalo.
They show Harry Mitchel, then Colgan's vice president of flight operations, indicating that Renslow -- who was flying a Saab turboprop at the time -- should not be promoted to fly the more sophisticated Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.
"Anyone that does not meet the [minimum standards] and had problems in training before is not ready to tackle the Q ," Mitchel wrote in August 2008.
Less than a month later, Colgan added Renslow to its fall class for Q400 pilots.
And three months after the February 2009 crash, Mitchel said under oath before the safety board that Renslow was "fully qualified" to fly the Q400 and added: "From his Q400 training, going forward, [Renslow] had 16 months of a very fine track record with successful completion of six training and checking events."
Asked to comment on that contradiction, Hochul said: "I'll leave it up to the Attorney General's Office as to whether that constitutes perjury."