For most Americans, the plane crash that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 10, 2019, seems long ago. But not for my family. Our 24-year-old daughter, Samya Rose Stumo, was among the 157 people killed when the new Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane they were flying crashed shortly after takeoff. This followed a similar crash a few months earlier of another 737 MAX 8 in Indonesia that killed 189 passengers.
We now know that a culture of expedience, profit and recklessness contributed directly to both crashes — since the MAX 8 contained serious design flaws that should have grounded the aircraft. In fact, a subsequent Department of Justice investigation revealed Boeing’s criminal conspiracy to conceal safety problems from the Federal Aviation Administration. However, the Justice Department never conferred with victims’ families about Boeing’s behavior. Instead, it chose to deliberately conceal its investigation and covertly negotiate with Boeing toward a favorable, deferred prosecution agreement.
It’s now time to bring these facts to light. Boeing’s actions demonstrate just how dangerous such a course of action can be. And the backdoor negotiations that allowed Boeing to get off with a mere wrist slap greatly undermine Americans’ confidence in the federal agencies tasked with ensuring public safety. What’s needed now is for Attorney General Merrick Garland to personally meet with victims’ families — and to fully investigate the sweetheart deal that allowed Boeing to skate through with little punishment.
As awful as these plane crashes were for victims’ families, it’s been incredibly painful to learn that Boeing also engaged in far-reaching efforts to conceal its safety problems from the FAA. In fact, Boeing only began to reveal its conduct to the Justice Department after successfully delaying the crash investigation for six months. But here are some of the troubling facts we subsequently learned.
From 2016 to early 2017, Boeing laid off engineers and reduced its commercial airplane workforce by almost 8,000. In the first few months of 2017 alone, Boeing cut 1,332 engineering and technical jobs from its workforce. One engineer later said that Boeing was “targeting the highly paid, highly experienced engineers.” Doing so “eroded the company’s ability to successfully design and manage programs.”
From 2013 to 2019, the Boeing board voted to spend what amounted to 104% of profits on stock buybacks rather than allocate funds to pursue additional engineering and safety measures.
Boeing successfully lobbied to speed up aircraft certification. Federal rules were changed to allow aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing, a substantial role in determining whether planes were safe to fly. A 2013 Government Accountability Office report found that aircraft company employees approved by the FAA were performing more than 90 percent of certification tasks.
Boeing engineers were pressured by their managers to limit safety analysis in order to reduce costs. Congressional investigators subsequently learned that Boeing employees had serious misgivings about the 737 MAX, with one anonymous Boeing employee stating that the plane was “designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.”
Today, no one disputes that Boeing placed profit ahead of safety — and pursued a flawed, unsafe aircraft. This recklessness claimed 346 lives.
As bad as that is, the Justice Department has now compounded the pain. The Justice Department’s own regulations require that federal officials contact victims “at the earliest opportunity after detection of a crime.” But the department never contacted Boeing’s victims at any point during the investigation, much less at the “earliest opportunity.” Instead, it chose to deliberately conceal its investigation — and covertly negotiate with Boeing to resolve the case.
What we’re left with is this: Under the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement, Boeing must pay a mere $243.6 million criminal fine and establish a modest crash-victims beneficiaries victims fund; only one Boeing employee has been charged with a crime; Boeing’s CEO at the time, Dennis Muilenburg, collected $62 million in severance compensation; the 737 MAX is back in service; and Boeing is now led by Dave Calhoun, a Boeing board member intimately involved in the company’s evasive response to the crash investigation.
This is a case that demands the Justice Department honor its obligations to victims. The secret process that gave Boeing a sweetheart deal is a terrible, additional wound for grieving families. Attorney General Garland has a moral obligation to meet with families, reconsider the deferred prosecution agreement in light of victim considerations and ensure that the Boeing Company doesn’t simply get away with the deaths of innocent passengers.
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