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Families of 737 Max crash victims urge a judge to reject Boeing’s plea deal

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun testified before a Senate subcommittee last month, while family members of those killed in crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 jets in 2018 and 2019 held photographs of their loved ones.<br>
Andrew Harnik
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Getty Images
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun testified before a Senate subcommittee last month, while family members of those killed in crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 jets in 2018 and 2019 held photographs of their loved ones.

WASHINGTON — Boeing has reached a deal with the U.S. Justice Department, agreeing to plead guilty to misleading federal regulators in connection with the deadly crashes of two 737 Max 8 jets in 2018 and 2019.

But that plea deal has not quieted the anger of crash victims’ families.

As soon as the tentative agreement was announced, lawyers for those families said they would formally ask a federal judge to reject it.

“There's no criminal accountability for Boeing killing 346 people,” said Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah who is representing the crash victims’ families, speaking on NPR's Morning Edition. “Without that accountability, it's really hard for the families to see how things are going to go forward.”

The final terms of the plea agreement have not been made public. But according to a summary of the deal in court papers filed late Sunday night, Boeing will plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government about the safety of the 737 Max 8 jets that crashed. The company agreed to pay a fine of more than $243 million, and an additional $455 million on compliance and safety programs.

Under the deal, Boeing also consented to an independent monitor for three years to ensure that the company is complying with its terms.

The Justice Department hailed that as an important concession, arguing that Boeing has agreed to the most serious penalties that were available.

“This resolution protects the American public,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.

"This criminal conviction demonstrates the department’s commitment to holding Boeing accountable for its misconduct," the statement said. “Boeing will be required to make historic investments to strengthen and integrate its compliance and safety programs."

But family members of the crash victims were quick to criticize the deal.

“The penalties that the DOJ has asked for here are just woefully inadequate,” said Javier de Luis, a lecturer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

De Luis's sister Graziella died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019. De Luis also served on an expert panel convened by the Federal Aviation Administration after the crash of that Boeing 737 Max 8 jet, and another one the year before, that killed 346 people in total.

While de Luis says he would welcome a guilty plea from Boeing, he and other family members were hoping to see even bigger fines — as well as personal accountability for Boeing’s leaders. De Luis argues those tougher penalties are necessary to ensure that “we're not back here in a couple of years with the same story, with the same issues.”

This is not the first time Boeing and the DOJ have reached a deal stemming from the 737 Max 8 crashes. Boeing agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement in 2021, paying an identical $243 million fine and promising to make big changes around safety and compliance.

Clariss Moore, whose daughter Danielle Moore died in the Boeing 737 Max in Ethiopia in 2019, speaks during a memorial protest in front of Boeing offices in Arlington, Va., on March 10, 2023 to mark the four-year anniversary of the event.
Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Clariss Moore, whose daughter Danielle Moore died in the Boeing 737 Max crash in Ethiopia in 2019, speaks during a memorial protest in front of Boeing offices in Arlington, Va., on March 10, 2023 to mark the four-year anniversary of the event.

But prosecutors now say Boeing did not hold up its end of the deal, and threatened to bring criminal charges. The company disputed it had violated that earlier agreement, although it did ultimately agree to plead guilty as part of the new deal.

This time, the Justice Department insisted on an independent monitor to ensure Boeing is complying with the terms of the agreement. That’s a tool the department uses routinely in cases of corporate malfeasance, said Veronica Root Martinez, an expert on corporate misconduct and compliance and a professor at Duke University School of Law.

“To me an independent compliance monitor being appointed is a significant step, and it does signal that the department wants some sort of outside oversight,” Martinez said.

Lawyers for the victims’ families agree an independent monitor is warranted — but they disagree with the Justice Department over how that monitor should be appointed.

In a meeting with the victims’ families last month, prosecutors said Boeing would be responsible for proposing potential candidates for an outside monitor. But the victims’ families argued that would give the company too much influence in the process.

Under the proposed agreement announced on Sunday, any member of the public can suggest a proposed monitor, as long as they meet certain qualifications. The Justice Department would then make the final call, with input from Boeing.

“That strikes me as unusual,” said Martinez, who described the selection process as a “pretty significant concession from the department.”

But that compromise appears unlikely to satisfy the victims’ family members.

“We do not think that Boeing should be anywhere near the selection of the monitor because they have proven in the past again and again that they cannot be trusted,” said Erin Applebaum, a lawyer with the firm Kreindler and Kreindler, which is representing some of the victims’ families.

“We think that the only independent body that should be able to select a monitor for Boeing now is the court,” Applebaum said.

The proposed plea deal still needs approval from U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas, who could hold a hearing in the case as soon as this month.

“The judge has a lot of discretion here,” said Cassell, a former federal judge who now represents the victims’ families pro bono.

“The ultimate test is whether this is in the public interest to have the charges essentially resolved in this way,” he said. “And the victims, I think, have some very powerful, powerful reasons to suggest this isn't a good deal.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.