Despite high court ruling, pilot jobless

CARSON CITY -- A fired state pilot said the Nevada Department of Transportation refuses to rehire or make a financial settlement with him, though the state Supreme Court ruled he must be given a flying job.

"Basically NDOT has ruined me," former state pilot James Richardson said. "I feel the whole weight of the state is on me, and I haven't committed a crime."

Richardson was fired in 2008 for allowing the engine on the state's Cessna Citation to "over-speed."

He said Thursday he faces $100,000 in legal fees and for a time could not pay his rent because of the Transportation Department's continued refusal to reappoint him to his $60,000-a-year job.

In a Nov. 16 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that the agency could demote Richardson for the safety violation but also ruled that the infraction was not severe enough to fire him.

Instead of accepting that decision, Deputy Attorney General Catherine Thayer, on behalf of the Transportation Department, asked the court in documents filed Wednesday to rehear the case -- a request that rarely is granted.

Thayer said there are positions with the Department of Wildlife and Division of Forestry that Richardson might fill. A check of those agencies on Friday, however, revealed that those jobs are for helicopter pilots.

In her request, Thayer argued that the Supreme Court decision is "impossible to carry out" because there are no pilot positions open in the Transportation Department to which Richardson could be demoted.

Thayer also said that department Director Susan Martinovich and others have "lost confidence" in Richardson's flying ability.

Agency spokesman Scott Magruder said Friday that Richardson's dismissal was a "safety issue" and that his agency is not "trying to retaliate" against the pilot with prolonged litigation.

At the time of his dismissal, Richardson had been a state pilot for four years and always received satisfactory evaluations.

Richardson, 53, said he has been flying since age 19 and has 10,000 hours of flying experience.

After two years of trying, he found another job flying for a company in Ely, he said.

Richardson was fired from his state pilot's job after he failed to notify supervisors about how an engine on one of the state's planes "over-sped." The Federal Aviation Administration considers an over-speeding engine a safety threat. The engine should have been inspected before the plane flew again.

But a state hearing officer, Bill Kockenmeiter, ordered the Transportation Department to reinstate Richardson in 2009, contending his dismissal for a single safety violation was not justified.

The agency appealed that decision to Carson City District Court, and Judge James Russell decided that Richardson's termination was justified. Richardson then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Justices noted in the November decision that Richardson was fired though his immediate supervisor, Gary Phillips, was "not terminated for his transgressions." Those transgressions, according to the court, included allowing his 14-year-old son to pilot a state plane.

In her request for a rehearing, Thayer said there is no proof that Phillips, who is no longer employed by the Transportation Department, allowed his son to fly the state plane, other than a photo from Richardson showing the teenager in the pilot's seat.

Richardson said Thursday a Pratt and Whitney mechanic eventually inspected the Citation after the over-speeding incident, and no damage was found. He added he was not flying the plane at the time of the incident, but serving as a co-pilot while an intern employed by the Transportation Department under a pilot training program was at the controls.

He predicted that the agency will appeal the case in federal court if the state's high court rejects the request for a rehearing.

Richardson said he has given many documents on his case to Gov. Brian Sandoval but has not heard back from the governor, who serves as chairman of the state Board of Transportation.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.