Boeing’s misconduct hasn’t stopped Illinois politicians from taking campaign cash from the company

Based in Chicago until last year, the aerospace giant has given $50,000 to legislative leaders and other politicians since it admitted in 2021 it deceived regulators about a new aircraft that crashed twice overseas.

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Wreckage from a Boeing 737 MAX that crashed in 2019 in Ethiopia.

Wreckage from a Boeing 737 MAX that crashed in 2019 in Ethiopia.

AP

The Boeing Co.’s once-sparkling image has been tarnished in recent years by revelations it hid critical safety information about a model of plane that was involved in deadly crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019.

In a ruling in October, a federal judge wrote that, “but for Boeing’s criminal conspiracy to defraud” the Federal Aviation Administration, “346 people would not have lost their lives in the crashes.”

The aerospace giant’s money is still good, though, with Illinois legislative leaders and other politicians, who collectively have taken $50,000 from Boeing since Jan. 7, 2021, campaign disclosure reports show.

That’s the date Boeing was accused of fraud by the Justice Department and immediately agreed to settle the case — days before President Donald Trump left office — in which it was accused of deceiving the FAA about the Boeing 737 MAX jetliner.

That agreement, in effect, kept company executives from possibly facing criminal charges.

Many of the political contributions were made around Sept. 17, 2021, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Boeing announced that the company, with the help of a pledge of tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and other perks, would open a factory to build military drones at a sleepy airport in downstate Illinois near St. Louis.

Records show the Boeing contributions included:

  • $2,000 to Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, on Nov. 1, 2022, and $2,500 on Sept. 16, 2021. Asked about taking the money in view of the Boeing settlement, Harmon’s campaign spokesman says, “Senate President Harmon has always made consumer safety one of his top priorities, and nothing will ever compromise his position on keeping the people of Illinois safe.”
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

  • $2,000 to Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Westchester, on Nov. 1, 2022, and $2,500 on Sept. 20, 2021. Welch and his aides didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
  • $1,000 to now-former Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, on Nov. 5, 2022, and $1,000 on Sept. 17, 2021. Durkin, who recently resigned from the General Assembly, says he doesn’t know why he got the money and doesn’t recall Boeing ever asking for anything from him.
  • $1,000 to state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-East St. Louis, on Nov. 7, 2022, and $1,000 on Sept. 22, 2021. He didn’t return calls.
  • $500 to now-former state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, on Nov. 7, 2022, and $500 on Sept. 21, 2021. She couldn’t be reached.
A Boeing 737 MAX.

A Boeing 737 MAX.

AP

Boeing also made two $5,000 contributions to the Democratic Party of Illinois, one on Sept. 29, 2021, the other this past November, and two $5,000 contributions to the Illinois Republican Party in 2022.

Before the recent contributions, Boeing had given roughly $277,000 since 1998 to Illinois politicians and political groups, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Belt and Greenwood’s legislative districts include the MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, where the drone factory is under construction.

A Boeing drone refueling a military jet. This kind of unmanned aircraft will be built at a downstate airport.

A Boeing drone refueling a military jet. This kind of unmanned aircraft will be built at a downstate airport.

Boeing / YouTube

Pritzker’s office said in 2021 that “the company will be investing $200 million to build a state-of-the-art facility” at MidAmerica “to produce the MQ-25 Stingray, the U.S. Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned aircraft.”

Construction is expected to be completed next year.

Boeing could get as much as $8 million in tax credits largely for this project, while an additional $25 million will be “allocated to support runway/taxiway construction related to future aviation development by Boeing,” according to the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

In the 2021 announcement, Pritzker lauded Boeing, saying, “The world’s largest aerospace company is doubling down on Illinois because of our unparalleled assets in the transportation and logistics sector and the world-class talent of our people.”

The following May, Boeing announced it was moving its corporate headquarters from the Loop to a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Pritzker aides wouldn’t say when discussions began with Boeing over MidAmerica.

Boeing’s Illinois lobbyist John Frederick wouldn’t comment.

Boeing spokeswoman Mary Ann Brett declined to discuss the contributions or lawsuits filed against Boeing in federal court in Chicago stemming from the two overseas crashes.

In the first of those crashes, a Boeing 737 MAX went down on Oct. 29, 2018, shortly after taking off from an Indonesian airport. All 189 people aboard died. A second 737 MAX crashed March 10, 2019, in Ethiopia, killing all 157 on board.

Investigators found that a system that can affect flight controls — and that officials later said Boeing wasn’t forthcoming about with the FAA and airlines — was a factor in both crashes.

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed in 2019 in Chicago on behalf of a Rwanda citizen killed in the Ethiopia crash said it “occurred because, among other things, Boeing defectively designed a new flight-control system . . . that automatically and erroneously pushes the aircraft’s nose down and because Boeing failed to warn of the defect.”

Boeing was charged criminally with fraud for not being forthcoming about the system. Court records show company officials knew that, if they revealed the truth to the FAA and the airlines, regulators likely would have required additional, costly pilot training.

Parents of passengers killed in a 2019 Boeing 737 MAX crash in Ethiopia hold photos of victims.

Parents of passengers killed in a 2019 Boeing 737 MAX crash in Ethiopia hold photos of victims.

AP

In the settlement with the Justice Department, Boeing acknowledged the deception and pledged a $2.5 billion payout, and prosecutors agreed they wouldn’t pursue the criminal case against the company in which a possible conviction might jeopardize Boeing’s ability to get future defense contracting work.

Families of crash victims have said the 2021 settlement was reached “in the dark of night” following an investigation by the FBI’s Chicago office and have tried unsuccessfully to unravel it in federal court in Texas but plan to appeal.

If they manage to get the deal scrapped, that could make it possible for current or former Boeing executives — and not just the company — to face criminal charges, according to Paul Cassell, a lawyer for the families.

Separately, Boeing and former CEO Dennis Muilenburg were charged in a civil complaint by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last September “with making materially misleading public statements following crashes of Boeing airplanes in 2018 and 2019.”

Now-former Boeing President and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg is shown testifying to a congressional committee in 2019.

Now-former Boeing President and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg is shown testifying to a congressional committee in 2019.

AP

According to the SEC, which regulates publicly traded companies, Muilenburg and the company knew after the Indonesia crash that flight-control components called “MCAS posed an ongoing airplane safety issue but nevertheless assured the public that the 737 MAX airplane was ‘as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies.’ ”

After the Ethiopia crash, “Boeing and Muilenburg assured the public that there were no slips or gaps in the certification process with respect to MCAS despite being aware of contrary information,” according to the SEC.

That case also was settled, with Boeing agreeing to pay a $200 million penalty and Muilenburg agreeing to pay $1 million, though neither acknowledged any wrongdoing.

Muilenburg, who lives downstate, couldn’t be reached.

The Justice Department settlement requires Boeing to dedicate $500 million to beneficiaries of the crash victims.

The company won’t say how much it has paid to settle lawsuits — there are more than 100 of them in federal court in Chicago, two which could go to trial next month.

Chicago attorney Bob Clifford’s law firm represents the families of more than 70 victims of the Ethiopia crash, and he would be the top lawyer for the plaintiffs at that trial.

Boeing has hired former Dan Webb, the former U.S. attorney in Chicago, as its lead counsel.

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