FBI joining criminal investigation into certification of Boeing 737 MAX
March 20, 2019 at 12:55 pm - Updated March 20, 2019 at 1:29 pm
By Steve Miletich Seattle Times staff reporter
The FBI has joined the criminal investigation into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX, lending its considerable resources to an inquiry already being conducted by U.S. Department of Transportation agents, according to people familiar with the matter.
The federal grand jury investigation, based in Washington, D.C., is looking into the certification process that approved the safety of the new Boeing plane, two of which have crashed since October.
The FBI’s Seattle field office lies in proximity to Boeing’s 737 manufacturing plant in Renton, as well as nearby offices of Boeing and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials involved in the certification of the plane.
The investigation, which is being overseen by the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal division and carried out by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General, began in response to information obtained after a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 crashed shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Oct. 29, killing 189 people, Bloomberg reported earlier this week, citing an unnamed source.
It has widened since then, The Associated Press reported this week, with the grand jury issuing a subpoena on March 11 for information from someone involved in the plane’s development, one day after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 near Addis Ababa that killed 157 people.
The FBI’s support role was described by people on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the investigation
Representatives of the Justice Department, the FBI and Transportation Department declined to comment, saying they could neither confirm nor deny an investigation.
A Seattle Times story over the weekend detailed how FAA managers pushed its engineers to delegate more of the certification process to Boeing itself. The Times story also detailed flaws in an original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA.
Criminal investigations into the federal oversight of airplane manufacturing and flight are rare, in part because of the longstanding belief that a civil-enforcement system better promotes candid reporting of concerns without fear of criminal repercussions.
Those criminal cases that have occurred have focused on false entries and misrepresentations.
In 1998, Transportation Department and FBI agents, acting on a whistleblower’s allegations, served a criminal search warrant on Alaska Airlines, seeking evidence of maintenance irregularities.
The investigation expanded to include the January 2000 crash of Alaska Flight 261 that killed 88 people, which the National Transportation Safety Board later blamed on the airline’s faulty maintenance practices and poor FAA oversight.
But no criminal charges were filed, although the FAA, in a separate administrative review, ultimately found that Alaska and three of its managers had violated safety regulations, fining the carrier $44,000, revoking the mechanic licenses of two of the managers and suspending the license of the third.
Federal criminal charges were brought over the May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 crash that took off from Miami International Airport and plunged into the Everglades minutes later, killing 110 people.
Federal prosecutors in Florida filed a 24-count indictment against SabreTech, an airline maintenance contractor, and its workers over alleged violations in the handling of oxygen containers blamed for the crash. SabreTech was found guilty on nine counts but was acquitted on conspiracy charges, according to news reports. An appeals court later overturned all but one of the counts, the improper training of employees.