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Boeing will get a ‘sweetheart’ plea deal, says lawyer representing 737 Max crash victims

By David Goldman, CNN

(CNN) — The US Justice Department is nearing an agreement with Boeing that would include a corporate monitor and a fine in exchange for a guilty plea to criminal charges, according to lawyers representing the families of victims of two fatal 737 Max crashes, who harshly rebuked the offer as a “sweetheart deal.”

The criminal charges and potential plea deal come after repeated safety failures at Boeing that have resulted in multiple federal investigations and a sharp rebuke from airlines, customers, lawmakers and regulators. Criminal charges against a major corporation like Boeing are rare and would represent a serious blow to the company’s already precarious financial situation and further damage its battered reputation.

But the victims’ families said they were furious that Boeing may avoid trial, saying the government is letting the company off the hook for the deaths of their loved ones.

“I can tell you that the families are very unhappy and angered with DOJ’s decisions and proposal,” said Robert Clifford, lead counsel in the civil litigation against Boeing, in a statement. “There is no accountability, no admission that Boeing’s admitted crime caused the 346 deaths, and the families will most certainly object before Judge Reed O’Connor and ask that he reject the plea if Boeing accepts.”

Clifford and Paul Cassell represent many family members of the 2018 Lion Air crash and 2019 Ethiopian Air crash victims of Boeing 737 Max jets. They and some of the families they represent were briefed by the Justice Department Sunday about the plea deal.

The deal would include three years of probation, a “small” fine and and a monitor to ensure safety compliance, Cassell told CNN. Other specific terms of the proposed offer were not immediately known, and CNN has not reviewed the proposal first-hand. Bloomberg first reported the potential plea deal Sunday.

Boeing declined to comment, and the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Violating Boeing’s previous agreement

Last month, the Justice Department notified Boeing that its recent string of safety failures and production problems constituted a breach of the terms of its 2021 agreement in which the company avoided criminal charges for two fatal 737 Max crashes. A door plug blew off an Alaska Airlines flight shortly after takeoff in January, and the investigations that followed revealed a series of quality errors and safety gaps.

As a result, the Department of Justice said Boeing is subject to criminal prosecution, but it has not publicly announced its decision about whether it will prosecute the case. Last week, prosecutors urged the Justice Department to file criminal charges.

Boeing will have by the end of the week to determine whether to accept the plea deal or go to trial. The deadline for the Justice Department to file criminal charges in the case is July 7.

Cassell said the families were upset that the Justice Department deal excluded the prosecution of individuals at Boeing.

“The deal will not acknowledge, in any way, that Boeing’s crime killed 346 people. It also appears to rest on the idea that Boeing did not harm any victim,” Cassell said in a statement.

Although the Justice Department acknowledged the families’ strong desire to take Boeing’s criminal case to trial, the families’ lawyers said the Department of Justice feared it would be unable to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt — the higher standard of proof necessary for a conviction in a criminal trial.

A broken safety culture

More than a dozen whistleblowers have come forward against Boeing in recent years, and the number has grown substantially since the door plug incident in January. Last week, for example, a whistleblower from a contractor for Spirit Aerosystems, a Boeing manufacturing partner, said he notified the company of wide gaps in a key part of 787 Dreamliner planes that posed “catastrophic” danger to passengers.

As part of its plan to shore up its safety program, Boeing said it was looking to repurchase Spirit to bring manufacturing of its planes fully in house. Boeing spun off Spirit in 2005. Boeing and Spirit reportedly came to terms on a deal Sunday, according to Reuters, but the deal has not been publicly disclosed and Boeing declined to comment to CNN.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have opened multiple investigations into Boeing because of its ongoing quality and safety failures.

The FAA has said a six-week audit of Boeing’s facilities conducted in the late winter found multiple problems with Boeing’s production practices. A separate report found “gaps” in Boeing’s safety culture, including a disconnect between management and employees, and fears among employees about retaliation for reporting safety concerns.

Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun earlier this month apologized for Boeing’s recent safety failures in testimony delivered to a Senate committee but pushed back on claims the company retaliated against those who brought safety issues to light. Calhoun said Boeing is “far from perfect,” and acknowledged the company will not easily regain the public’s trust.

This story has been updated with additional context and developments.

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CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Rashard Rose and Chris Isidore contributed to this report

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