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Boeing could face criminal prosecution over 737 Max crashes

Boeing violated the terms of an agreement that allowed it to avoid criminal prosecution after two fatal 737 Max crashes more than five years ago, the Justice Department told a federal judge on Tuesday.

On 24 April, Justice Department prosecutors held a closed-door meeting with the families of the victims of the 2018 and 2019 crashes. On May 14, the Justice Department told the federal and the agency now has until July 7 to decide whether it will pursue criminal charges against Boeing. During that time, it will tell the court how it plans to proceed, the Justice Department said.

Glenn Leon, head of the Justice Department’s fraud division, said in a letter that the aerospace company failed to take steps to avoid violating federal anti-fraud laws. This is a flagrant violation of a 2021 deferred prosecution agreement.

The Justice Department has said it can prosecute the company “for any federal criminal violation of which the United States is aware.” One such violation is a fraud charge that Boeing had hoped to circumvent by entering into a $2.5 billion agreement with the US government.

The government has not said whether it will continue to prosecute Boeing, one of its largest aerospace contractors. The Justice Department said in a court document:

The Government is determining how it will proceed in this matter.

According to the investigation, the 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 were linked to a new flight control system that Boeing installed on the planes without notifying the airlines and their pilots. The aerospace company then overlooked the importance of the system and did not reconsider its use until after the second accident.

How Boeing escaped criminal prosecution

The Department of Justice later investigated Boeing. On 7 January 2021, the department entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. It agreed not to prosecute charges of defrauding the government while misleading regulators who approved the 737 MAX after closed-door negotiations with Boeing.

Instead, Boeing paid a total of $2.5 billion in settlement compensation. That includes nearly $1.8 billion to the airlines, $500 million to a victim compensation fund and a $243.6 million fine to the US government. Acting Assistant Attorney General David P. Burns of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in 2021:

The tragic crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 exposed fraudulent and deceptive conduct by employees of one of the world’s leading commercial airplane manufacturers. Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA concerning the operation of its 737 Max airplane and engaging in an effort to cover up their deception.

US Attorney Erin Neely Cox of the Northern District of Texas also flagged the Justice Department’s 2021 agreement with Boeing in a statement. She said:

The misleading statements, half-truths, and omissions communicated by Boeing employees to the FAA impeded the government’s ability to ensure the safety of the flying public.

The agreement between Boeing and the US government had to run out on 7 January. Two days earlier, during an Alaskan Airlines flight that also used a 737 MAX, a door panel burst in midair. The incident triggered a 2024 Justice Department investigation into whether Boeing violated the terms of the 2021 agreement.

As a result of the various accidents and incidents, Boeing has faced numerous civil lawsuits, Senate and House investigations, and increased public scrutiny of its business practices.


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