In the dwindling weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Justice Department announced that it had reached a settlement with Boeing to resolve a years-long criminal investigation after two 737 Max jetliners crashed and killed 346 people. The headlines predictably focused on the top-line figure that the government had advertised — a $2.5 billion payment from the company — but this was about as accurate as a Trump University marketing flyer. In fact, this may have been one of the most unusual and ill-conceived corporate criminal settlements in American history.
In theory, there is a complicated set of federal guidelines for setting fines, but suffice to say that the Justice Department’s calculation, which is contained in the agreement, adopted virtually the most lenient interpretation of those guidelines possible. The $234.6 million fine, according to the department, represents “Boeing’s cost-savings” from the two employees’ misconduct. Essentially, the government just required the company to give up its ill-gotten gains. A precise analogue is hard to come by, but a useful comparison is the government’s 2012 settlement with BP following the Gulf Coast oil spill — a deal that required the company to pay the federal government $4 billion in criminal fines and penalties (followed later by a roughly $15 billion payment to settle civil claims).That means that Boeing’s payment of $243.6 million is essentially the only real “new” money that Boeing will pay.
This may still seem like a lot, but the company got something extraordinary in return.
In addition to crediting the company for remedial measures following the crashes, the agreement states that “the misconduct was neither pervasive across the organization, nor undertaken by a large number of employees, nor facilitated by senior mismanagement.” I cannot recall an affirmative exculpation like this in any other corporate criminal settlement — nor could Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and one of the country’s foremost experts in the area, who told me that he could “not recall ever seeing language of this sort.”
Republicans are a worker’s part now.