I-Team: Former Sheriff Candidate Under Federal Investigation - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: Former Sheriff Candidate Under Federal Investigation

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Jerry Airola talks with George Knapp in July of 2006. Jerry Airola talks with George Knapp in July of 2006.
Jerry Airola in 2006 Jerry Airola in 2006

A prominent Las Vegas businessman who tried to become Clark County Sheriff is now the focus of a federal investigation. Subpoenas have been issued by a federal Grand Jury for information about the business dealings of Jerry Airola, who sold his helicopter company and left Nevada more than a year ago.

Airola's lawyers insist their client is getting a raw deal.

"I'm not saying Mr. Airola is a victim, I'm saying Mr. Airola is not responsible for the acts they are trying to attribute to him," said attorney George Kelesis.

Kelesis admits he's in a weird spot. He's a close friend and staunch supporter of Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who fought a pitched political battle against Airola in 2006. In the campaign, Airola hammered away at Gillespie and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Now Kelesis and his partners are defending Airola against a rash of lawsuits and a possible federal indictment. "The circumstances are very unique," he said.

Subpoenas issued earlier this month appear to be a broad investigation of Airola's business practices. Kelesis could not confirm this, but believes it to be true.

Airola was the owner of Silver State Helicopters, one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S., with chopper pilot schools in several states. The company actively solicited students to sign up for classes, helped them secure financing for the $70,000 tuition and promised to help them find jobs.

On the surface, Airola appeared to be a business wunderkind, "We put together a great program and did what we said we were going to do, and the company became successful."

He used that success as a springboard into politics, spending millions of dollars on his campaign for sheriff. He was touted as a rising political star, but everything unraveled.

Students began complaining the company didn't have enough helicopters or staff to do what it had promised. Many dropped out but were stuck with paying back their loans. Civil suits have been filed against Airola and the company, and last summer, FBI Agents began contacting former students for information.

In 2007, Airola sold most of his stake in the company. Within months, the new owners decided to declare bankruptcy, which left all the remaining students out in the cold.

Kelesis says Airola had nothing to do with it, "That position was opposed to adamantly, vehemently, and loudly by Mr. Airola. He did not want to file bankruptcy. In fact, he objected and voted against it."

Kelesis says Airola had, on his own, worked out a deal with five other helicopter companies so that students could finish their training even after Silver State closed. The new owners told him no, "It was just flat rejected."

What's left of the company is being cannibalized and sold off for pennies on the dollar, Kelesis says, which means the students who are suing won't have much to go after. This time, at least, Airola is not the culprit, "He had no power. He had no say so. He had no authority."

Kelesis adds that the company which bought Silver State spent more than $1 million to investigate it's financial soundness before the purchase was completed and that it was in good shape when Airola ran it.

Airola is now living in Texas where he works as a police officer for a Native American tribe.

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