Paul Ehlen, majority owner of Bloomington-based Precision Lens, died Tuesday morning in a private plane crash in Montana — just months after being found to have violated the federal anti-kickback statute and the False Claims Act.
The crash occurred at the Ravalli County Airport during or shortly after takeoff at 8:07 a.m., according to the local Sheriff's Office and flight records. The aircraft was a World War II vintage P-40E, registered with the Federal Aviation Administration to one of Ehlen's LLCs.
Precision Lens Chief Financial Officer Bill Henneman confirmed Ehlen was piloting the plane.
"Precision Lens is saddened by the passing earlier today of its founder Paul Ehlen," the company said in a statement. "Paul had a passion for restoring and flying vintage military aircraft, and he was killed this morning when the single-engine P-40 he was flying back to Minneapolis suffered a mechanical failure on takeoff."
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board have been notified and will investigate the official cause of the crash, the Sheriff's Office said.
No one else was on board the aircraft when it crashed, and the pilot was pronounced dead at the scene, according to a Ravalli County Sheriff's Office news release. The airport is in Hamilton, Mont., just south of Missoula, where Ehlen has a home.
"Above all else, Paul was a family man, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and children whom he loved so dearly," the company statement continued.
A federal jury in February found Ehlen and his Cameron-Ehlen Group Inc., which does business as Precision Lens, violated the federal anti-kickback statute and False Claims Act, returning a $43 million judgment.
However, U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright entered a higher judgment of $487 million in May, agreeing with federal prosecutors who had requested more severe damages.
The company, at that time, said it planned to appeal the decision and called the award an "unconscionable windfall."
The jury and judge were convinced by prosecutors who said Precision Lens operated a slush fund that paid eye surgeons — through luxury ski vacations and trips to exclusive sporting events — to induce them to use their products in cataracts surgeries that were reimbursed by Medicare.