If you’ve ever seen Law and Order, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a plea bargain. It’s that ultimatum the detectives always deliver, where someone can confess to a crime, rat someone else out, or otherwise cooperate in exchange for a lighter punishment. When Boeing was investigated the 346 deaths caused by 737 MAX crashes, the company received a similar bargain from the U.S. Justice Department — one that the victims’ families now say violates their rights.
For starters, some background: In late 2018 and early 2019, two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft crashed, in Indonesia and Ethiopia respectfully. The Department of Justice launched a 21-month investigation into the company, and found that faults with the plane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (and the surrounding training) contributed to the crashes, and Boeing’s “culture of concealment” kept the flaws under wraps.
Boeing was charged with fraud, and agreed to pay over $2.5 billion under the terms of the “deferred prosecution agreement” — the very deal now at issue with families of the crash victims. A DPA, while similar to a plea bargain, can actually be even more lax: Rather than prosecuting a defendant for a lower crime, or giving a more lenient sentence, a DPA means the charges against a company will eventually be dropped altogether.
Relatives filed a motion arguing the United States Government “lied and violated their rights through a secret process.” They have asked a U.S. judge to declare that the order violated victims’ families rights to rescind Boeing’s immunity from criminal prosecution that was part of a $2.5 billion agreement.
The Justice Department “chose to deliberately conceal its investigation and covertly negotiate with Boeing about resolving the case,” the family members said.
They asked a U.S. judge to order that Boeing be publicly arraigned on the felony charges.
For Boeing, the second-largest military contractor by revenue, a criminal conviction would have massive ramifications. Department of Defense contractors convicted of fraud can be barred from ever receiving future government contracts, a move that would deprive Boeing of billions in annual revenue.
Boeing has admitted to “criminal misconduct for misleading regulators” without actually pleading guilty to any charges. Should this motion proceed, and the case against Boeing move forward, it seems like a prosecutor’s dream — proving that a company did the thing it admits to doing. Still, knowing how closely Boeing works with the government, those charges could be held in limbo forever. After all, what’s a little fatal fraud between such close coworkers?