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737 Max crash victims' families aim to reopen Boeing's deferred prosecution agreement

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Some of the families of those who died in two separate 737 Max plane crashes are asking a federal judge this morning to throw out the government's preferred prosecution agreement with Boeing. They say the agreement reached by the Trump administration last year lets Boeing off easy, but the Justice Department is defending the deal. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The deferred prosecution agreement allows Boeing and its top executives to avoid further criminal prosecution by admitting they conspired to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration in the certification of the 737 Max. The company acknowledges deceiving and misleading federal regulators about an automated flight control system that played a major role in both plane crashes. The deal also requires Boeing to pay $2.5 billion in compensation and a fine. But the settlement blindsided the families of the 346 people who died in the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia because they'd been told by the Justice Department there was no criminal investigation.

NAOISE RYAN: It was a sweetheart deal. It wasn't justice.

SCHAPER: Naoise Ryan's husband, Mick, was among those killed in the second 737 Max crash in Ethiopia in March of 2019.

RYAN: This was a slap on the wrist for Boeing. It was done in the dark of the night kind of thing that nobody knew about it, that we had been lied to.

SCHAPER: Ryan and the other crash victims' family members say that under the Crime Victims' Rights Act, they had a legal right to be consulted before the deal was cut. And now they want the agreement rescinded. Michael Stumo's 24-year-old daughter, Samya, was also killed in the Ethiopian plane crash.

MICHAEL STUMO: We want accountability. We want the judge to say that we are victims under the definition of the Crime Victims' Rights Act. It's clear what that law says.

SCHAPER: In court documents responding to the family's motion, the Justice Department apologizes for not meeting and conferring with them. But the government contends it had no legal obligation to do so because the crash victims are not crime victims under the law. Prosecutors say the evidence does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Boeing's conspiracy to defraud the FAA is what caused the crashes. But Michael Stumo vehemently disagrees.

STUMO: Boeing committed a fraud on the FAA, which caused for an unsafe plane. And that unsafe plane crashed and killed our daughter. It's pretty straightforward.

SCHAPER: The deferred prosecution agreement is being sharply criticized by some unlikely political bedfellows, including Senators Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who wrote an amicus brief in support of the family's motion, saying in part that the Justice Department's position is simply nonsensical. And some legal experts agree.

ANKUSH KHARDORI: I would characterize the deal as one of the worst corporate criminal settlements in modern history, if not the worst. It's one of the worst.

SCHAPER: Kush Khardori is a former federal prosecutor who worked in the financial fraud section of the DOJ.

KHARDORI: The terms are inexplicable in their totality. There are provisions in there that have no precedent.

SCHAPER: Khardori says even though Boeing admits to a two-year criminal conspiracy to commit fraud, it's extremely unusual that the Justice Department would include a provision stating that the misconduct was not pervasive and did not involve senior management.

KHARDORI: The government usually does not, in the course of these investigations, affirmatively exculpate anyone.

SCHAPER: But Khardori says even if the judge finds that the families are crime victims and should have been consulted, it's not clear what legal remedy there would be.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.