Brandishing photos of passengers killed in two crashes of 737 MAX, relatives of victims pleaded Thursday at the bar of a Texas court, sometimes in tears, for heavier sanctions against Boeing and its leaders.
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“Boeing is responsible. It’s obvious, ”said Catherine Berthet, whose daughter Camille died in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight. And yet “no one has been arrested or charged,” she lamented.
“We want to see them in prison” abounded at the exit of the hearing Paul Njoroge, who lost his wife and children in the same flight. “Why did the Department of Justice try to protect Boeing? »
In question: an agreement reached in January 2021 by the ministry with the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, accusing it of having misled the aviation regulator during the authorization process for MCAS, a key system of the device put involved in the accidents, but also granting him some immunity in exchange for 2.5 billion dollars in fines and compensation and certain conditions to be met.
The so-called Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) provides that the ministry withdraws the charge after three years if the company meets certain conditions.
An arrangement far too complacent in the eyes of the families, who took legal action for not having been consulted.
The magistrate in charge of the case at the Fort Worth court, Reed O’Connor, acknowledged in October that they could be considered “victims of crimes” and therefore had, as such, the right to be heard. He then summoned all parties to a hearing on Thursday.
The families there pleaded for the agreement to be modified, including the appointment of an independent auditor and the lifting of the provision granting immunity to company officials for the plane crashes of Lion Air in 2018 and Ethiopian. Airlines in 2019, which had caused a total of 346 deaths.
“We want them to go see Boeing to seize documents and examine them” justified Paul Njoroge. “We know they will conclude that senior Boeing officials committed fraud. »
Boeing pleads ‘not guilty’
A Boeing representative pleaded not guilty on behalf of the company at the start of the hearing on Thursday.
The judge then asked the ministry to provide him with more information about the agreement and indicated that he will make a decision later.
The families’ lawyer, Paul Cassell, expects a quick return.
“The provision guaranteeing immunity to Boeing and in fact to all its leaders (…) goes against federal law”, he said at the end of the court.
Boeing and the US Department of Justice oppose reopening the deal.
“We have made broad and deep changes to the company, as well as design changes to the 737 MAX, to ensure that such accidents never happen again,” Boeing said in a statement Thursday.
“We are also committed to continuing to strictly comply with all the obligations set out in the agreement reached with the Ministry of Justice two years ago,” the company added.
In its indictment, the ministry pinned the actions of two employees of the aircraft manufacturer, but did not implicate the management.
Prosecutors also said there was no need to appoint an independent auditor because the wrongdoing was “not widespread” or “facilitated by senior officials”.
Whether the magistrate will accede to the families’ requests remains very uncertain.
“The judge could cancel the DPA, but I think it’s unlikely,” said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia University, for whom the agreement is indicative of the tendency of the authorities not to want to attack too much hard on big business.
When it comes to prosecuting, “the law grants prosecutors and the executive a great deal of discretion,” he told AFP.
Brandon Garrett, a lawyer at Duke University, believes that the courts do not take sufficient account of the general interest when they must validate or not the DPAs.
But even if Judge O’Connor decides to revise the agreement, “I imagine that the department would appeal, invoking its right to stay the charges,” he notes.
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