Calif. woman accused of flight school fraud

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Immigration officials on Wednesday arrested a woman accused of bringing foreign students to train at her Southern California flight school on fraudulent visas and without government authorization.

Karena Chuang, 28, was arrested Wednesday at a friend’s house in Rancho Cucamonga and is charged with visa fraud for allegedly enrolling students from Egypt, Sri Lanka and Taiwan at her La Verne-based flight school, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.

Chuang’s Blue Diamond Aviation school wasn’t authorized to receive foreign students under federal government screening procedures that aim to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officials said.

“She is not scrutinizing people nor does she have the ability to know whether or not they have terrorist ties, which is why the whole procedure exists,” Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles, told The Associated Press.

“These people are actually going up in the air to get their training — they’re getting access to aircraft, too, and we don’t know who they are,” he said.

Chuang was ordered released Wednesday afternoon on a $40,000 bond with electronic monitoring, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office. A preliminary hearing has been set for Dec. 21.

A number listed for Chuang’s Lake Elsinore home rang through to a fax line. Jennifer Uyeda, an attorney with the federal public defender’s office, said she just received the case and did not have details of the allegations.

It isn’t the first time flight schools have let foreigners train without proper authorization. Last year, a flight school in El Cajon, Calif., pleaded guilty to creating fake visa documents for foreign students and a Massachusetts flight school was found to have trained illegal immigrants from Brazil.

Foreign students can apply to attend flight schools in the United States that are authorized to enroll them. The schools will issue paperwork for admitted students to then apply for a visa to travel here.

Students also must be screened by the Transportation Security Administration, which runs a fingerprint-based criminal background check with the FBI’s help and runs students’ names against terrorist watch lists.

Immigration officials say Chuang posed as the students’ cousin to help them get the paperwork required to apply for visas from government authorized flight schools and then had them attend her cheaper school instead.

Chuang coached students not to tell U.S. officials during interviews that they planned to attend her flight school, Arnold said.

Arnold said none of the more than dozen foreign students who trained at Chuang’s school since 2006 had ties to terrorism.

John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said he believed training foreigners at unauthorized schools to fly small planes posed a minimal security threat and that maneuvering a larger commercial aircraft would take a tremendous amount of skill that aspiring terrorists don’t likely have.

He said other measures can be taken to protect against a potential hijacking, such as hardened cockpit doors.

“If there’s laws being broken, there’s laws being broken,” said Mueller, who recently co-authored a book on the cost effectiveness of homeland security spending. “If there’s the idea these people are suddenly going to become terrorists and cause bad damage with little tiny planes, it is a questionable assumption.”

Four of the 9/11 hijackers received flight training in the United States before the attacks — and three of them had simulated flights in large jets.

The training offered at Blue Diamond involved smaller aircraft but a majority of Egyptian students who enrolled there planned to continue onto another flight school to learn how to fly larger planes, said Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman.

Chuang lured students to her school by charging less money for a commercial pilot’s license and wrapping up training in six months instead of a year, Kice said.

Authorities say they learned of the scheme last year when two Egyptians who received visas to attend a flight school in Northern California admitted they planned to enroll at Blue Diamond.

Blue Diamond is now closed but Chuang has been operating a different flight school in La Verne, investigators said in papers filed with the court.

If convicted, Chuang could face a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, according to federal prosecutors.

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