While Boeing’s push to lift the grounding of the 737 MAX is making headlines, federal prosecutors have been quietly gathering information to determine if criminal conduct contributed to two deadly crashes of the troubled jetliner.
The prosecutors have been tight-lipped about the investigation, which only came to light when they began issuing subpoenas. They have refused to even acknowledge the existence of the investigation, largely because of strict rules that prohibit them from discussing secret grand-jury proceedings.
But a window into their work emerged from a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., between prosecutors and a Kirkland-based consultant who has raised questions about Boeing’s development of the plane.
While the consultant, Peter Lemme, was originally subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, he instead underwent six hours of close questioning by two prosecutors in the U.S. Justice Department’s Fraud Section, at least one federal agent and several other people.
“They’re thorough,” said Lemme, a former Boeing flight-controls engineer who is now an avionics and satellite-communications consultant.
The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General and the FBI are participating in the probe, according to informed sources who have spoken on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the inquiry.
Lemme agreed to describe the general parameters of his discussion, but said he’d abide by the prosecutors’ request not to divulge specific questions that they said might taint or influence the testimony of other witnesses.
Although Lemme has no direct personal knowledge of the airplane’s development or certification, he performed a detailed analysis of the first crash, in which a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Oct. 29, killing 189 people.
He was extensively cited as an expert in The Seattle Times in a March 17 story about the crashes, and in multiple other press accounts.
Lemme received a grand-jury subpoena on April 1, weeks after the second crash of a 737 MAX, this time an Ethiopian Airlines plane on March 10 near Addis Ababa. That crash, which killed 157 people, led to the international grounding of the MAX fleet and Boeing’s ongoing efforts to gain approval of its fix to a new flight-control system on the plane.
The subpoena directed Lemme to surrender emails and other records, which he provided.
He agreed to meet on May 10 with the investigative team, a member of which, he said, arrived with a notebook with Lemme’s name on it and 22 tabs with excerpts of material he had provided.
“I would say they did their homework,” Lemme said.
During the meeting, he said, he highlighted his perceptions of “shortcomings” in the development of the MAX based on available information about its production.
Most of the questions came from Cory Jacobs, a Justice Department attorney, Lemme said. Lemme’s grand-jury subpoena listed Jacobs and a second Justice Department attorney, Carol Sipperly, as contacts.
While the attorneys listened intently to particular answers, they were “not assuming, or gunning for someone,” Lemme recalled.
Most of the questions focused on Boeing and the company’s processes rather than the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) certification of the plane, he said.
There were questions about the March 17 Seattle Times story, written by Dominic Gates, that drew widespread attention. The story detailed how FAA managers pushed its engineers to delegate more of the certification process to Boeing itself, and detailed flaws in an original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA.
It isn’t known if others have met with prosecutors or appeared before the grand jury, which seems to be meeting on certain Fridays in Washington, D.C. No charges have been brought.
Boeing has refused to acknowledge it is under criminal investigation, saying only in a recent securities filing that it is “fully cooperating with all ongoing governmental and regulatory investigations and inquiries relating to the accidents and the 737 MAX program.”
The company did announce on May 1 the appointment of a newly created czar to oversee all legal matters arising from the crashes.
J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge who has served as Boeing’s general counsel since 2006, was named counselor and senior adviser to Boeing Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg and the company’s board of directors.