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Boeing agrees to plead guilty in connection to plane crashes that killed 346 people

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In a deal with the U.S. Justice Department, aerospace giant Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to one criminal count of conspiracy to defraud the government. This all stems from the crashes of two 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019 that killed a total of 346 people. But the deal has not quieted anger from the families of those who died. NPR transportation correspondent Joel Rose has been following this and joins us now, Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Joel, I understand the Justice Department released an outline of the agreement in court papers last night. Tell us what we know so far.

ROSE: Yeah. We haven't seen the final terms yet. But under this proposed deal, Boeing will plead guilty to one felony count, admitting that it misled federal regulators about the safety of those two 737 Max 8 jets and the flawed flight control system that led to those two crashes. Boeing will pay a fine of more than $240 million and has also agreed to spend more than 450 million on compliance and safety programs going forward.

SUMMERS: Interesting. Joel, what do we know about why Boeing would plead guilty now?

ROSE: The company has not said much publicly, but I think it is safe to say that Boeing wants to avoid the embarrassment and, you know, the potential liability of a public trial. Boeing and the DOJ reached a similar agreement back in 2021, and the company agreed to pay an identical fine back then and also promised to make big changes around safety and compliance. And in exchange, the Justice Department agreed not to prosecute the company. But the DOJ now says Boeing did not hold up its end of the deal, and it threatened to take Boeing to court. Boeing disputed that it had violated that earlier agreement, although it did ultimately agree to plead guilty.

SUMMERS: I have to imagine this is a lot to take in for family members of the crash victims. What have you heard from them?

ROSE: The reaction I would describe as disappointed but not surprised. I spoke today with Javier de Luis. He's a lecturer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. He also lost his sister Graciela in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019. And here's some of what de Luis said about the plea deal.

JAVIER DE LUIS: The penalties that the DOJ has asked for here are just woefully inadequate, not just from the perspective of providing some accountability for the crime that occurred but also inadequate from the perspective of trying to ensure that the behavior that led to these two crashes is not repeated.

ROSE: De Luis says he does welcome the guilty plea from Boeing, but he and other family members were hoping to see even bigger fines as well as personal accountability for some of Boeing's leaders.

SUMMERS: Joel, how will the Justice Department make sure that Boeing holds up its end of the deal this time around?

ROSE: That is a big point of contention here. Under this deal, Boeing has agreed to have an independent monitor for the next three years to make sure the company is complying. This is a tool that the Justice Department uses regularly in cases of corporate malfeasance. And I talked to Veronica Root Martinez, who is an expert on independent monitors at Duke University School of Law. Here's part of what Martinez had to say.

VERONICA ROOT MARTINEZ: To me, an independent compliance monitor being appointed is a significant step, and it does signal that the department wants some sort of outside oversight.

ROSE: The contentious part here is who gets to appoint that monitor. Initially, the Department of Justice said Boeing could propose potential candidates, but the family members of the crash victims really pushed back on that. So under this proposed deal, anybody in the public can suggest a proposed monitor, and then the DOJ will make the final call with input from Boeing.

SUMMERS: Got it. I mean, Joel, I have to ask, is that going to satisfy the concerns of the families of these crash victims?

ROSE: I think no. I mean, I spoke with Erin Applebaum. She's a lawyer with the firm Kreindler and Kreindler, who is representing some of the victims' families. And here's how she put it.

ERIN APPLEBAUM: We do not think that Boeing should be anywhere near the selection of the monitor because they have proven in the past again and again that they cannot be trusted, and we think that the only independent body that should be able to select a monitor for Boeing now is the court.

ROSE: And family members say they just do not trust DOJ or Boeing to appoint a monitor who is truly independent and will look out for the interests of the flying public.

SUMMERS: Last thing, Joel. Quickly, what is next in this case?

ROSE: Yeah. The proposed plea deal still needs approval from a federal judge in Texas. There could be a hearing on that in his court room as soon as this month. And, of course, none of this has anything to do with the door plug panel that blew out of an almost-new Boeing 737 jet in midair about six months ago. The company's still under enormous scrutiny because of that.

SUMMERS: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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