Boeing could be criminally prosecuted after it allegedly breached terms of 2021 agreement, feds say

Washington — The Justice Department said it is determining whether it will prosecute airplane manufacturer Boeing after federal investigators accused the corporation of violating the terms of a 2021 deferred prosecution agreement, according to a letter filed in a Texas court Tuesday. 

In January 2021 — following two crashes of 737 Max jets years earlier that killed 346 people — Boeing and the federal government entered into an agreement whereby the company agreed to pay a $2.5 billion settlement and abide by custodial stipulations in exchange for the Justice Department dropping a fraud conspiracy charge after three years. 

That three-year period, overseen by a federal judge in Texas, was set to expire in July and would have resulted in the Justice Department closing the case if it determined Boeing had fully complied with the conditions. 

But on Tuesday, federal prosecutors wrote that Boeing “breached its obligations” under the deferred prosecution agreement, in part by allegedly failing to “design, implement, and enforce a compliance and ethics program to prevent and detect violations of the U.S. fraud laws throughout its operations.” 

“For failing to fulfill completely the terms of and obligations under the DPA, Boeing is subject to prosecution by the United States for any federal criminal violation,” Justice Department officials wrote in the letter. “The Government is determining how it will proceed in this matter.” 

The letter argued that investigators are no longer bound by the 2021 agreement and are “not limited” in their probe into the aircraft manufacturing giant. 

Boeing has until June 13 to respond to the Justice Department’s allegations and their explanation will be used as prosecutors consider their next move, the filing said. 

The news comes more than five months after the cabin door of an Alaska Airlines plane blew off mid-flight, sparking congressional and federal investigations. In March, a person familiar with the matter confirmed to CBS News that prosecutors were looking at whether anything that led up to or contributed to the blowout might affect the deferred prosecution agreement. 

There was no mention of the Alaska Airlines flight in the letter. 

In a statement provided to CBS News on Tuesday evening, a Boeing spokesperson acknowledged the company had received the letter, and said that “we believe that we have honored the terms of that agreement, and look forward to the opportunity to respond to the Department on this issue. As we do so, we will engage with the Department with the utmost transparency, as we have throughout the entire term of the agreement, including in response to their questions following the Alaska Airlines 1282 accident.”    

A former quality manager who blew the whistle on Spirit AeroSystems, a troubled Boeing supplier that builds the bulk of the 737 Max, told CBS News he was pressured to downplay problems he found while inspecting the plane’s fuselages. Speaking publicly for the first time last week, Santiago Paredes said he often found problems while inspecting the area around the same aircraft door panel that flew off Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 just minutes after it had taken off from Portland, Oregon, on Jan. 5. 

Last month, families of some of the 737 Max crash victims met with Justice Department officials for an update on the case against Boeing. In their letter on Tuesday, prosecutors told the judge that the Justice Department “will continue to confer with the family members of the victims of the Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashes,” and that the Justice Department “separately notified the victims and the airline customers today of the breach determination.”

“This is a positive first step, and for the families, a long time coming,” said Paul Cassell, an attorney who represents the families of some of the victims of the 737 crashes, in a statement. “But we need to see further action from DOJ to hold Boeing accountable, and plan to use our meeting on May 31 to explain in more detail what we believe would be a satisfactory remedy to Boeing’s ongoing criminal conduct.” 

Robert A. Clifford, another attorney representing family members of victims of one of the 737 crashes, said in a statement, “This is a way for Boeing to be held criminally responsible in court. It’s what the families have wanted. They want answers as to what really happened in the crashes and for the safety of the public to be protected.”   

The Justice Department declined to comment further when reached by CBS News. 

— Kris Van Cleave, Michael Kaplan and Sheena Samu contributed to this report. 

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