After two fatal crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX, a federal agent served a grand jury subpoena Monday seeking information from an aviation flight-controls expert and consultant as part of a sweeping and aggressive criminal investigation into the jet’s certification.
The expert, Peter Lemme, a Kirkland-based former Boeing flight-controls engineer who is now an avionics and satellite-communications consultant, has no direct personal knowledge of the airplane’s development or certification but he did a detailed analysis of the October crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX. He was extensively cited as an expert in The Seattle Times, and subsequently in multiple press accounts, including in The New York Times.
That the investigation is seeking information from someone with peripheral knowledge of the MAX’s certification, someone outside Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is highly unusual and shows the Department of Justice is casting a very wide net.
The subpoena came on the same day that a congressional committee requested records from Boeing and the FAA related to the MAX certification.
The Associated Press reported last month that federal prosecutors issued a grand jury subpoena to a person involved in the plane’s development. But the subpoena to Lemme is the first documented confirmation of the grand jury investigation, which has been previously disclosed only in news accounts citing unnamed sources, and provides the clearest picture yet of the extent of the criminal probe.
A Justice Department official declined to comment Monday evening and referred questions to the department’s media representatives, who also declined comment.
The subpoena directs Lemme to provide to the grand jury by April 12 “any and all documents, records, emails, correspondence, audio or video recordings, text messages, voice messages, chats and/or other communications including drafts related to the Boeing 737 MAX.”
This request, the subpoena states, is “to be construed broadly” and to include all photos, voicemails and cellphone-app communications.
Lemme is also directed to appear in person before the grand jury in Washington, D.C., on April 12, or, in lieu of that, to provide all this documentation promptly to federal prosecutors in the Fraud Section of the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division. The lead prosecutors are Cory Jacobs and Carol Sipperly, according to the subpoena. The FBI has also joined the investigation.
Lemme said the subpoena was served by a special agent from the Seattle field office of the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General.
In a phone interview, Lemme said he will fully comply.
Prosecutors in grand jury proceedings are forbidden from discussing the proceedings. However, the Justice Department investigation appears to be centered on the process by which FAA certified the 737 MAX as safe.
A Seattle Times story last month detailed how the FAA delegated to Boeing itself a system safety analysis of the flight-control system that is suspected to have caused both the Lion Air crash and also the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March.
In that story, current and former FAA staff described how managers pressed them to delegate more to Boeing and complained of not having enough time to evaluate the Boeing documents that were produced to prove compliance with safety regulations.
Safety engineers familiar with the system safety analysis documents also shared details suggesting the design of the new flight-control system on the MAX — known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — included crucial flaws.
Last week, Boeing outlined a software fix that addresses all the details criticized in the story. But the company denied that the original design was inadequate and characterized the changes as merely making the MCAS “more robust.”
The two jet crashes, which killed a total of 346 people, have already spurred multiple civil lawsuits against Boeing.
However, criminal investigations into the U.S. aviation industry, including federal oversight of airplane manufacturing and airline operations, are rare — in part because of the longstanding belief that a civil-enforcement system better promotes candid reporting of concerns without fear of criminal repercussions.
Those criminal cases that have occurred have focused on false entries and misrepresentations.
The Fraud Section of the Department of Justice handles cases involving sophisticated economic and corporate crime, including complex white-collar crime throughout the country.
For example, it oversaw the prosecution of the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
On Monday, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure requested records from Boeing and the FAA as part of its investigation into the 737 MAX certification process. The committee also announced that it has established a whistleblower webpage and encouraged any current or former officials or employees of Boeing and the FAA who are familiar with the MAX certification program to share any information. The website allows people to submit information anonymously, the committee said.
“Understanding where things went wrong is critically important because tragedies like this should not happen,” said Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-OR. “In the end, we hope our oversight efforts will help strengthen aviation safety.”