The Last Flight Plan

Aviation pioneer Jean Rich succeeded because she was smart and tough. But when she died, her family and her airline went into a tailspin.

After the will was read, Harrington recalls, a courier arrived with copies of documents. A somewhat apologetic Garofalo joked about attorneys and explained that in order for the company to retain its military contracts -- in light of Jean's death -- it had to show continuity of management. In brief, he wanted the children to sign a "voting trust agreement" giving Meenan all voting rights they held as company shareholders. The agreement would expire in five years. According to Harrington, Garofalo told them, "This is what your mother wanted." Three of the four -- the three boys -- signed. Harrington put the document in her briefcase and asked for time to look it over.

She never did sign, and spent the next two years trying to invalidate her brothers' agreements. More than four years after that meeting, Harrington remains so annoyed by the episode that when she speaks of it, she feels compelled to stand up and imitate Garofalo. She waves her hands, slams the table, repeats the phrase that angers her most: "This is what your mother wanted."

Harrington believes that she's the one in a position to know what Jean Rich would have wanted. For one thing, she has inherited her mother's stubbornness. The two women had fought fiercely as the domineering Rich tried to control her daughter's life. Harrington, though, was rebellious from a young age. Against her mother's wishes, she married at eighteen. When she was just 22, she handed her baby girl to her grandmother for frequent short periods, and headed across the country to work with the advance teams for rock and roll bands, including Fleetwood Mac. But in time mother and daughter reconciled completely. Harrington keeps boxes of letters from her mother; on birthdays they wrote each other sentimental notes; Harrington herself wrote poems for her mother. Photos show the two huddled together at parties.

The daughter's involvement with Rich International Airways has become a disputed matter. Harrington says she ran the airline's cargo department for several years before heading to England with her second husband, Colin Harrington, a British business consultant. When she returned in 1989, she says, her mother gave her a job and a title, director of marketing. But Bill Meenan's lawyer, Mark Scheer, claims Harrington hadn't worked at the airline for at least a year before her mother died.

Since Jean Rich's death, Harrington has not been employed. Instead she has worked continuously to substantiate the charges made in her lawsuits. As she talks about the subject, her words come slowly and deliberately. She has dissected the company's day-to-day activities, studied volumes of maintenance logs, and knows who her stepfather meets with and when. But as she recites this litany, her voice breaks in anger. She loses her train of thought, repeats phrases, and recites something akin to a mantra: "I'm Jean Rich's daughter first and foremost."

Though Meenan's people are quick to say "she's no Jean Rich," they may underestimate her. Harrington fights on, despite being repeatedly frustrated in court. She had to defend herself against foreclosure proceedings to hold on to the Islamorada house she's worked so hard to transform. A three-year effort to buy her stepfather's shares in the airline fell flat. Meenan and Batchelor even stymied her attempts to bring independent management to the firm. But she simply will not quit.

In December 1992, a year following Jean Rich's death, Harrington filed suit in probate court charging that Bill Meenan tripled his salary through deceit, that he failed to transfer to the children their shares of the company, and that he took advantage of the boys' grief by having them sign away their rights on their dead mother's birthday. (Meenan's attorney counters that, had the children been given their shares when they demanded them, Meenan would have been saddled with tax debt.)

Harrington and her attorney eventually got what she wanted. Under a settlement recorded June 21, 1993, Meenan withdrew the "voting trust agreements." He also agreed to give the children more say in the corporate management by allowing them to appoint two members to the board of directors. (The other side would appoint two members and the probate judge would appoint a fifth.) Also under the settlement, the children were to receive a monthly salary and a consulting job that would allow them to earn it. Meenan got to keep most of his increased salary -- $175,000.

About six months after that settlement, George Batchelor dramatically altered the equation when he purchased David Rich's shares of the airline. The price: $600,000. Jean Rich's children no longer owned a controlling interest in the airline. Why her son decided to sell his inheritance to Batchelor remains a mystery (neither man will comment), though Harrington saw it as a personal affront.

Harrington's effort to create a board of directors that Meenan and Batchelor didn't dominate also came to naught. The men tried to block the appointment of a fifth director, and when he was finally appointed, they trampled the settlement agreement by meeting privately and changing the company's bylaws so that Harrington, her brother Stephen, and the fifth director could not hold an official meeting without Meenan or a Batchelor proxy in attendance. The two men then simply refused to attend board meetings in Harrington's presence.

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