DOJ to present Boeing with plea deal that families of 2018, 2019 crash victims say falls short: Lawyers

DOJ to present Boeing with plea deal that families of 2018, 2019 crash victims say falls short: Lawyers
Scott Olson/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The Department of Justice is preparing to present the Boeing Company a plea deal that would again allow the aerospace giant to avoid a trial over an alleged conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to attorneys for families of victims of two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes who were briefed on the department’s plans Sunday afternoon.

Under the proposed deal, Boeing would be required to enter a guilty plea to the conspiracy charge, which was first filed January 2021, for allegedly misleading the FAA during its evaluation of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft. The company must also agree to the appointment of an external corporate monitor, pay a fine of about $200 million and remain on probation for three years, according to lawyers for the families.

During the briefing with the DOJ, family members of the crash victims expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal, according to attorneys representing the families. The families contend that the deal contains no accountability and no admission that Boeing’s alleged conspiracy caused the deaths of 346 people who were killed in the two Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. The victims’ families have been pushing DOJ to take the company to trial and to impose fines upwards of $20 billion.

“The Justice Department is preparing to offer to Boeing another sweetheart plea deal,” wrote attorneys Robert Clifford and Paul Cassell in a statement. “The deal will not acknowledge, in any way, that Boeing’s crime killed 346 people. It also appears to rest on the idea that Boeing did not harm any victim. The families will strenuously object to this plea deal. Judge [Reed] O’Connor [of the Northern District of Texas] will have to decide whether this no-accountability-deal is in the public interest. Indeed, he will have to decide whether to approve [an agreement] that ties his hands at sentencing and prevents him from imposing any additional punishment or remedial measures. The memory of 346 innocents killed by Boeing demands more justice than this.”

According to the statement from Clifford and Cassell, “Glenn Leon, Chief of the Fraud Section of the Criminal Division at the U.S. DOJ, told the group on the call that the DOJ hasn’t shared the new plea agreement with Boeing but would do so later Sunday. [Leon] admitted there is ‘a strong interest’ by the families to go to trial, but he repeatedly said that the DOJ couldn’t prove charges by a reasonable doubt. Families argued over and over for a trial and to allow a jury to make that decision,” the statement said.

Mark Lindquist, another attorney for crash victims’ families, told ABC News that Boeing will be given until the July 7 to accept the deal. If Boeing rejects the terms, the DOJ will pursue prosecution.

“The company would be absolutely brutalized in a highly public trial,” Lindquist said. “Boeing has way too much dirty laundry to risk the bright spotlight of a trial.”

The Department of Justice and Boeing declined to comment.

Clifford and Cassell told the DOJ that the victims’ families “will be traveling from around the world to go to the next hearing before Judge O’Connor in Texas “to fight this,” according to the attorneys’ statement.

The deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) was put into place in the final days of the Trump administration, when the DOJ charged Boeing in a criminal information with one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. for allegedly misleading the FAA during the agency’s evaluation of the new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Over 300 people died in the two MAX crashes — the first in Indonesia in October 2018 and the second five months later in Ethiopia.

Under the terms of that agreement, the DOJ fined Boeing $243.7 million and required the company to pay $1.77 billion in compensation to its airline customers and $500 million to the victims’ beneficiaries. The company was also required to disclose any allegations of fraud, cooperate with the government and avoid committing any felony offense. Under these conditions, the DOJ agreed to defer criminal prosecution for three years.

“I firmly believe that entering into this resolution is the right thing for us to do — a step that appropriately acknowledges how we fell short of our values and expectations,” David Calhoun, Boeing president and CEO, said in a note to employees after the company was charged by the DOJ in 2021. “This resolution is a serious reminder to all of us of how critical our obligation of transparency to regulators is, and the consequences that our company can face if any one of us falls short of those expectations.”

But in May — four months after the door plug fell off Alaska Airlines flight 1281 over Portland, Oregon — the DOJ informed Boeing that the company had failed to live up to its obligations under the DPA.

The DOJ’s determination once again opened Boeing up to possible prosecution on the original charge or “for any federal criminal violation of which the United States has knowledge,” according to a DOJ letter sent last month to U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who presides over the criminal case.

Boeing has disputed the DOJ’s finding of a breach in the DPA.

“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,” the company said in a statement in May.

Nadia Milleron, mother of Samya Rose Stumo, 24, a Massachusetts native who died in the Boeing Max crash in Ethiopia in 2019, spoke to ABC News Sunday after the families of victims were briefed by the DOJ.

“I don’t understand why they’re offering the plea deal. They don’t need to,” Milleron said. “They should just take them to trial.”

Milleron said that Boeing pleading guilty without a trial is “not what the victims want. That’s not what the victims’ families want.”

Milleron said she planned to travel to Fort Worth, Texas, to oppose the plea deal if and when it is presented to the judge.

In a written statement, Javier de Luis, who lost his sister in the 2019 crash, called the deal “inadequate.”

“The issue is not whether there should be trial vs a plea deal. The issue is that the penalties being proposed by the DoJ are totally inadequate both from the perspective of accountability for the crimes committed, and from the perspective of acting in the public interest by ensuring a change in Boeing’s behavior,” read Luis’ statement. “The penalties proposed here are essentially the same as those proposed under the previous DPA which, as Alaska Air demonstrated, did nothing to increase the safety of the flying public.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.