In Fort Worth, 737 Max crash victim families scold Justice Dept. in Boeing fraud case
As sunlight leaked on Thursday morning through window blinds on the second floor of the U.S. District Court building in Fort Worth, the discussion was of the tumult that resulted when aircraft were thrust into a Southeast Asian sea and an Ethiopian field.
Thirteen people who are relatives of victims of Boeing 737 Max crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 told Judge Reed O’Connor of memories they held and of plans that were upended by the catastrophes.
They relayed the various purposes of the victims’ travel and the broader purposes of their lives. All 189 passengers and crew on board the first flight, Lion Air 610, died. In the second flight, Ethiopian Airlines 302, all 157 passengers and crew on board died.
Several victim representatives described sleep disrupted by thoughts of the experience of rushing to death inside a plane falling out of the sky.
After recounting biography and grief, many of the relatives turned to their assessment of a deferred prosecution agreement between federal prosecutors and The Boeing Company. The relatives said that the agreement, under which Boeing will pay about $2.5 billion in a criminal penalty, compensation payments to Boeing’s 737 MAX airline customers and to a crash-victim beneficiaries fund, was crafted without consulting them. It falls short of holding accountable a company that they allege was motivated by greed.
Paul Kiernan told O’Connor that he had lost his soulmate.
“Our future together will never happen,” Kiernan said of his partner, Joanna Toole.
Toole and the other victims were the human cost in what he said was Boeing’s calculation that passenger safety was inferior to its own interests.
“The deferred prosecution agreement is not justice because it was never intended to be justice,” said Kiernan, who is from Ireland.
“They knew,” Kiernan said of Boeing, “and did nothing.”
The agreement was reached in January 2001, when the U.S. Department of Justice charged Boeing with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Such agreements often call for prosecutors to seek the dismissal of a charge when the terms of the agreement are satisfied. The matter was filed In the Northern District of Texas because the fraud at least in part occurred in the district.
Boeing admitted that two of its 737 MAX flight technical pilots deceived the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft evaluation group about an important aircraft part known as MCAS that affected the flight control system of the Boeing 737 MAX. Because of the deception, a key document published by the FAA lacked information about the part, and in turn, airplane manuals and pilot-training materials for U.S.-based airlines lacked information about it, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas has said.
In November 2016, two of Boeing’s 737 MAX flight technical pilots discovered information about an important change to the control system part. Rather than sharing information about this change with the FAA, Boeing concealed the information and deceived the FAA about the part.
Victim representatives on Thursday repeatedly criticized the deferred prosecution agreement at an initial appearance hearing that O’Connor ordered last week.
Zipporah Kuria, a London resident whose father, Joseph Kuria, died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, said outside the courthouse that it had been disappointing to hear Boeing and the Justice Department “sing from the same script” during arguments on conditions of release.
Paul Cassell, an attorney for the victims’ relatives, sought three such conditions. A standard requirement that the defendant not commit new federal, state or local crimes; a monitor to evaluate Boeing’s agreement compliance; and the public release of the substance of Boeing’s agreement compliance efforts.
Lorinda Laryea, the principal deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice criminal fraud section, argued that the second and third conditions were unprecedented, unnecessary and inappropriate.
Indeed, as they developed the agreement, fraud section prosecutors determined that an independent compliance monitor was unnecessary.
Benjamin Hatch, a Boeing attorney, said that agreement compliance was a matter of regular discussion with prosecutors. The company pleaded not guilty.
O’Connor ordered a condition prohibiting the company from committing a new crime, and said he would later issue an order on the other conditions.
The families have challenged elements of the agreement and have sought an order from O’Connor that would rescind its immunity provision. The victim representatives assert that the agreement violates the Crime Victims Rights Act because prosecutors did not confer with victims’ relatives before entering into it.
O’Connor interrupted Catherine Berthet, the second victim representative to speak at the arraignment hearing, to ask how much remained of her lengthy statement on her daughter, Camille Geoffroy.
“I’ll give you one more minute, so wrap it up,” O’Connor said.
When Berthet continued beyond the limit, O’Connor again interrupted and she briefly insisted on continuing.
“Please. ma’am, step on back,” the judge instructed.
Paul Njoroge’s three children, wife and mother-in-law died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
“The question that always lingers on my mind is why did the Department of Justice try to protect Boeing?” the Canadian man said in an interview with reporters outside the courthouse.