Relatives of 737 MAX victims seeking to undo a plea deal Boeing made with the Department of Justice, will make their case to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland next week. Lawyers are calling the meeting with the nation’s top law enforcement officer ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unprecedented’. But in filing court documents claiming the Justice Department violated their rights when it signed a deferred prosecution agreement with Boeing, they are following the playbook of victims of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2008, Federal law enforcement made an arrangement with Epstein that is similar in opacity to the deal prosecutors made with Boeing. Epstein was allowed to avoid a trial and lengthy prison sentence and sweeping immunity was granted to anyone else involved in Epstein’s crimes, known or unknown.
In the Boeing deferred prosecution agreement (referred to as a DPA), Justice Department lawyers concluded without explanation that the company’s misconduct was limited to a few mid-level pilots but not pervasive or facilitated by senior management.
That Boeing was allowed to plead guilty to fraud in exchange for a fine and a promise to behave better in the future, enraged MAX victims’ families who had been told all along, and falsely it turns out, that no criminal investigation into Boeing was underway. They learned about the plea deal only when the Department of Justice issued a press release when the deal was done.
Naoise Ryan, whose husband Mick, died on Ethiopian Flight 302 recalls she was in a daze when she saw news of the agreement on television in Ireland where she lives with her two young children.
“I remember sending a message to my lawyer asking, ‘What does this mean?’ It was impossible to comprehend that this was supposed to be justice or criminal accountability. It was like our loved ones were nothing,” she told me.
At this point, Ryan had to stop to compose herself as she recounted the event, explaining, “It’s upsetting in a way, remembering this now because it puts me right back. They were treated as though they were cargo, not human beings.”
Prosecutors are required by law to keep victims informed throughout the process, according to Paul Cassell the attorney bringing the claim against Boeing’s DPA on behalf of Ryan and others.
“For reasons we don’t fully understand, Boeing and the government were trying to get things wrapped up in early January of 2021,” said Cassell, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah who specializes in crime victims’ rights. “They were working so quickly to craft a deal that was good for Boeing, that they didn’t consider the impact on the victims.”
For more than a decade Cassell has been advocating for two victims of Jeffrey Epstein and others who participated in the abuse but were given immunity from prosecution. In both the Epstein and Boeing cases, Cassell says the government was obligated to keep victims informed as the cases moved through the criminal justice system but failed to do so.
“The immunity provisions were part of a secret and illegal agreement,” Cassell told the court of the Epstein deal. And in language that is similar in theme if not subject matter, Cassell is now telling the judge in Texas that the same thing has happened to Boeing’s victims.
“DPA’s facts appear to have been carefully crafted to downplay the depth and breadth of Boeing’s crimes,” Cassell writes in his motion to the court. Including the 737 MAX families’ in the process and hearing what they had to say, “would have presented the Government with evidence exposing the pervasiveness of Boeing’s wrongdoing.”
The Boeing DPA says that two test pilots were responsible for deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration during the certification of the MAX. That allowed a fatally flawed airplane to be sold into the global airline market. This was one step along the way to the crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
But like the Epstein victims, MAX families are not content – nor apparently, do they believe – that the wrongdoing was so narrowly confined.
“How can you deny the facts in the public domain? How can you say there wasn’t widespread culpability?” Ryan asked, concluding, “Something’s not right here.”
Late last week, Ryan and others were invited to make presentations to Kenneth Polite, Assistant Attorney General – Criminal Division. Polite, I am told by several people who attended the online meeting, was compassionate and engaging. Cassell said the families asked to talk to Attorney General Merrick Garland and days later, they were notified that would happen this coming week.
It is worth noting that Jeffrey Epstein served his 9-month sentence in a Palm Beach County jail and much of the publicity surrounding his abuse of dozens of teenage girls had died down but the victims’ rights case filed by Cassell and attorney Bradley J. Edwards kept moving forward. It can be credited in part for resurrecting public interest in the Epstein case and ultimately his second prosecution and incarceration in 2019. Epstein died in a federal detention center in New York in August of that year.
In December 29, 2021, his former companion, Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted for her role in the serial abuse of children.
So if the Justice Department can glean anything about the people now asserting the rights due victims under the law, it is that they are represented by a lawyer who has been waging this war for a while and appears unfazed by the length of the journey.
In denying the 737 MAX families their rights, they have been given a platform to make the case that Boeing’s lies led to the deaths of their loved ones. They may make that case in a Texas courtroom and they are already making it in the court of public opinion.
The question for Attorney General Garland and perhaps even for Boeing is how long they want that to continue.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.