Boeing Executive

This image taken Jan. 7 shows a section of the Boeing 737-9 Max that lost a panel in flight, in Portland, Ore. The incident may have been partially responsible for reversal of an agreement that had allowed Boeing to avoid criminal prosecution in connection with carashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. NTSB via AP

 

Javier de Luis left a closed-door meeting in April with U.S. prosecutors with familiar feelings of anger and frustration. He and other family members of Boeing 737 crash victims felt the Justice Department seemed unlikely to reopen a criminal fraud case against the company – even after a door panel blew out of an aircraft operated by Alaska Airlines in January, revealing Boeing’s ongoing safety problems.

Weeks later, de Luis received an email with stunning news: Prosecutors had found Boeing in breach of the agreement that allowed it to avoid criminal prosecution in connection with crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 that killed 346 people, including his sister.

A criminal fraud conviction against the company was now possible, giving hope to families who have waged a frustrating battle to hold Boeing accountable for years.

“Nobody was more shocked or happier to be shocked than me,” said de Luis, a lecturer in the aeronautics and astronautics department at MIT whose sister, Graziella de Luis y Ponce, 63, was a freelance interpreter who worked for the United Nations and other agencies when she died.

Justice Department officials have declined to comment on the matter, including what factors led them to conclude that Boeing had not met the conditions of its 2021 “deferred prosecution” deal. They have not said whether the criminal investigation into the Alaska Airlines blowout or subsequent appeals from family members played a role.

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As part of the settlement in 2021, Boeing agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion in penalties and admitted that two of its technical pilots deceived federal safety regulators about a software system blamed for the accidents. Of that, $500 million was set aside for families. The company also agreed to strengthen its compliance program and enhance compliance program reporting requirements. The agreement ended Jan. 7, 2024 – two days after the Alaska Airlines accident – opening up a six-month review period for prosecutors to determine whether Boeing complied.

In a two-page letter sent to U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor on May 14, Justice Department officials wrote that Boeing didn’t meet the terms of the agreement because it did not “design, implement, and enforce a compliance and ethics program to prevent and detect violations of the U.S. fraud laws throughout its operations.”

Families said the Alaska Airlines door panel blowout has altered the path of their emotional battle for stronger measures against the powerful aircraft manufacturer.

“I think it was God-sent,” said Ike Riffel about the January accident, which involved no serious injuries. “It brought this back into public’s view – that nothing had really changed at Boeing. There has been a lot of scrutiny, and a lot of new information has been revealed.”

Riffel’s two sons Melvin, 29, and Bennett, 26, were among five Americans who died when the Nairobi-bound Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed in March 2019 shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. The pair had been on an around-the-world tour, a bonding trip for the brothers as Melvin prepared to welcome his first child.

The Ethiopia crash occurred just five months after another Boeing 737 Max 8 jet operated by Lion Air crashed in Indonesia. In the years since, families from more than two dozen countries have formed a tight bond as they have closely monitored the investigation. They’ve held vigils in Ethiopia and D.C. pored over documents, consulted with technical experts, huddled with whistleblowers and testified in court searching for answers they hope will prevent future crashes and force the U.S. government to take stronger action.

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Families, who were furious they were never told or consulted about the 2021 settlement, were told by Justice Department officials that because they weren’t considered crime victims, prosecutors were under no obligation to consult them. They were told the only victim was the government, which has been defrauded.

At her mother-in-law’s home in western Ireland, where she’d taken her two children to stay during the coronavirus pandemic, Naoise Connolly Ryan remembers staring at the television, shaking her head and thinking: This can’t be right.

“I was totally and utterly shocked,” said Ryan, whose husband Mick, 39, the global deputy chief engineer with the U.N. World Food Program, died in the Ethiopia crash. “Up until that point, I thought justice would be done.”

Led by Paul G. Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah College of Law and former federal judge, the families successfully won the right to be designated crime victims. But while the judge found government had violated the families’ right to be consulted as part of the 2021 settlement, he said he did not have the authority to undo the deferred prosecution agreement.

“It’s like – you never quite make it,” de Luis said. “It’s always Lucy pulling the football away every time. I understand the wheels of justice turns slowly. I understand there are other motivations, but it has been incredibly frustrating.”

Still, the designation as crime victims afforded the families important rights and requires that they be informed of significant developments and are to be consulted by the Justice Department as prosecutors seek to make their decision, which laid the groundwork for several meetings including the one in April.

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Connolly Ryan flew from Ireland to Washington as one of about a dozen family members who attended the meeting in person. She said Justice Department officials were respectful and polite, listening attentively to points raised by individuals. Citing the ongoing investigation, they offered few answers to families’ questions and asked few of their own, she recalled. Riffel said officials were more engaged than in previous meetings, which he said came across as “box-checking exercises.”

Justice Department officials are still determining what the breach will mean for the company. Under the terms of the settlement, the department has until July 7 to make a decision. Experts say prosecutors have several options: They could extend the length of the agreement and appoint an independent monitor to ensure Boeing complies with the terms. They could create a new agreement. The two sides could reach a plea deal or the case could go to trial.

Boeing has denied that it breached the agreement and has until June 13 to explain. The company declined to comment for this article, but it said in a statement released this month: “We believe that we have honored the terms of that agreement, and look forward to the opportunity to respond to the Department on this issue. As we do so, we will engage with the Department with the utmost transparency, as we have throughout the entire term of the agreement, including in response to their questions following the Alaska Airlines 1282 accident.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who recently chaired a subcommittee hearing that featured testimony from several Boeing whistleblowers, said in a statement in response to the Justice Department’s announcement that he was not surprised the company had not lived up to its pledges.

“When Boeing was granted a deferred prosecution agreement, I said that it would incentivize bad behavior and do nothing to change the rotten corporate culture that allowed Boeing to mislead and deceive regulators, because it held no one accountable,” he said in a statement. “The only way to ensure companies put safety above profit is through transparency and accountability.”

One recent example, the Federal Aviation Administration last month announced it had launched an investigation into whether Boeing employees did not complete required inspections of 787 Dreamliner aircraft built at the company’s plant in Charleston, S.C., and falsified paperwork to say the reviews were done.

De Luis and others are now steeling themselves for the next step. On May 31, many will return to D.C. for another meeting with Justice Department officials – probably their final chance to weigh in on what they think should happen to Boeing before the July 7 deadline.

Looking ahead to that meeting, Mark Pegram – whose 25-year-old son, Sam, was on his way to a U.N. conference in Nairobi and was killed in the second crash – recalled his final words to Justice Department officials in April.

“I told them my son dedicated his life to wanting to make the world a safer and better place,” he said. “And that should be their job as well.”


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