An 18-year employee is accused of downloading data from company computers and feeding the insider information to the media.

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It has the elements of a best-selling suspense novel: hidden computer devices, anonymous tipoffs, conspiracy theories and accusations of critical safety lapses at a major corporation.

But in the end, what King County jurors will have to decide in a criminal trial that began Tuesday is simple: Did a former Boeing assembly inspector access thousands of company files, download them without authorization and funnel the proprietary information to the media?

Or did Gerald Eastman — a dedicated but disgruntled longtime employee who had taken his concerns about Boeing’s assembly-line inspection procedures to the Federal Aviation Administration — have permission to view those files?

If convicted of 16 counts of first-degree computer trespass, Eastman, 46, faces 3-½ to 4-¾ years in prison. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Eastman, who inspected engine mounts and tail pipes on Boeing’s assembly line in Tukwila, was investigated after an anonymous tipster alleged to Boeing in April 2006 that Eastman had leaked information about aircraft designs, financial projections and production problems to news media, including The Seattle Times.

At the metal desk where Eastman sat just feet from the production floor, Boeing investigators discovered a purple cord protruding out of his company hard drive and going into a hole in the back of a locked drawer. There they found a “thumb drive” — a separate memory device — connected to the company computer, according to charging papers.

Eastman spent hours every day surfing internal company Web sites and downloading more than 8,000 files police later found saved on Eastman’s home computer, according to charging documents.

Eastman, who worked for Boeing for 18 years, was arrested at his desk in May 2006.

During opening statements Tuesday, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Scott Peterson told the jury that Eastman had created elaborate, color-coded Excel spreadsheets in which he “mapped all the Boeing fileshares and whether he could get access to them or not.”

Despite Eastman’s belief that ethical missteps and safety flaws plagued the assembly process and other aspects of the company’s operations, the 16 Seattle Times stories that Boeing claimed included information from the downloaded documents had nothing to do with that, Peterson argued. Instead, the documents had to do with Boeing’s plan for “green” planes, sales projections, new business lines and problems with 777 production — “things Airbus would like to know,” Peterson said.

He also said Eastman exchanged e-mail correspondence with and suggested news stories to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter.

Defense attorney Ramona Brandes said in a court affidavit that Eastman admits to being the source of at least one Times article on Boeing.

Suki Dardarian, a Times managing editor, said Tuesday that The Times does not comment on who may or may not be a confidential source.

When Boeing began to investigate Eastman, company higher-ups already knew about his concerns. Eastman believed Boeing was encouraging and requiring inspectors to sign off on reports that inspections had been completed when they had not, a practice known as “roller-stamping,” and he had reported those concerns to the FAA and Boeing.

The federal agency and the company conducted audits, but Eastman was still not satisfied, according to Peterson and defense attorney Brandes.

“He starts to look for evidence … because everyone else is turning a blind eye,” Brandes said. But Eastman did not collect any data from unauthorized areas or “hack” into restricted files, she said.

Boeing was upset with Eastman because “he didn’t sing the company song,” Brandes said. It’s true, she told the jury, that Eastman was moved to a different project because he worked more slowly than other inspectors, often stopping to pore over product specs while others operated from memory. He didn’t care as much about schedules.

But Eastman did not trespass, she argued. “Gerald Eastman is an authorized user of the Boeing network … ,” she said. “He had consent.”

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com