Farhad Azima’s aviation leasing company in Kansas City flies under the radar, quietly shuffling airplanes around the world for influential clientele. The Iranian-American businessman is a footnote to the Iran-Contra scandal. But what’s he been up to lately?
With the release of the Panama Papers this week, a name surfaced that hasn’t been in the news for a generation. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Farhad Azima was alleged to have aided the illicit arms trading scheme of the Reagan administration that involved selling arms to Iran and using the profits to fund a covert war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Houston Post reporter Pete Brewton also linked Azima to the CIA and Mafia’s involvement in the rip off of the savings and loan industry during the same era.
Azima, a Kansas City-based aviation executive, was one of many businessmen who reportedly aided the clandestine Iran-Contra operation ran out of the White House by Col. Oliver North. Azima began his career as the CEO of Global International in the late 1970s. His other aviation-related businesses have included Capitol Air, Buffalo Airways, and more recently, HeavyLift, an air cargo company operating out of Azerbaijan.
But the crown jewel of Azima’s high-flying empire remains Aviation Leasing Group or ALG. As denoted in its name, the company leases planes. This sometimes involves purchasing the aircraft, deregistering it and then leasing it to a foreign company or individual. The Federal Aviation Administration duly tracks these transfers. In the past, planes with tail numbers registered to ALG and then deregistered have ended up in the European tax haven of Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Zaire.
The most recent international activity tied to an ALG-connected tail number occurred last month, according to FAA records. But the paper trail dates back decades. ALG’s business appears to involve shuffling aircraft worldwide, which involves swapping out the tail numbers of the planes. In this case, a DC-8, with the tail number of N855BC, was taken off the FAA books in 1991 because it was exported by ALG to the west African nation of Ghana. The FAA then reissued the same tail number to a different aircraft, a 1986 BAE 125 turbo prop on March 2, 2016.
Regardless of whether the reassignment of FAA tail numbers is an anomaly or standard practice, the new owner of the aircraft now identified with N855BC is worth noting. The plane is now registered vaguely to a “Bank of Utah Trustee.” Since its reincarnation in the Western Hemisphere, N855BC has had a busy flight schedule, according to Flight Aware, an online aircraft tracking website.
The flights jump to and from Florida, the Caribbean and Latin America. On March 25, for example, the newly reborn N855BC flew from Punta Cana International Airport on the east of coast of the Dominican Republic to Opa Locka Executive Airport in Miami. From Opa Locka, it next flew to another small airport in Orlando. The following day the plane flew from Orlando to a remote airport in eastern Venezuela. Later the same day, the plane took off from Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba and landed back back at Opa Locka airport in Miami. On March 27, N855BC flew from Opa Locka to the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas, Venezuela. On March 28, the same plane flew from Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic to Fort Lauderdale. Finally, last week, on April 2, N855BC flew from Fort Lauderdale back to the General Jose Antonio Anzoategui International airport in eastern Venezuela.
Multiple flights from three small airports in Florida to destinations in Venezuela, Aruba, the Dominican Republic, all within less than week.
A plane owned by a Bank of Utah Trustee, with a tail number formerly assigned to a Kansas leasing company whose owner is an alleged CIA operative, has been hop-scotching between various destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America, logging tens of thousands of air miles.
There’s no way of knowing for sure why this plane is touching down at these locations. But it’s easy to speculate. The most obvious commerce associated with this region of the world is drugs and mo ney laundering. Aruba is a known for its off-shore banking. Venezuela is next door to Colombia, the world headquarters for the cocaine trade. The Dominican Republic is a trans-shipment point for drug traffickers. On the other hand, maybe the Bank of Utah Trustee is operating tourist charters or humanitarian flights.