On March 23, a federal jury in Fort Worth, Texas acquitted a former Boeing test pilot of charges for wire fraud stemming from his work on the Boeing 737 Max. In 2018 and 2019, system failures on the jets led to two fatal crashes and the deaths of 346 people. In October of 2021, a grand jury indicted Mark Forkner for allegedly deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration during the certification process for the 737 Max. Forkner served as chief technical pilot during the certification of the jet. The federal government alleged that Forkner intentionally hid information concerning the flight-control system, which ultimately caused the fatal crashes, from regulators at the FAA in order to avoid expensive flight simulator training for pilots with previous experience piloting other 737 jets. Forkner allegedly had made negative statements about the system’s performance in flight simulators in private but withheld that information from the FAA.
Ultimately, the jury was asked to decide whether Forkner had committed wire fraud. Wire fraud is the most common fraud charge pursued by the federal government. In order to prove that Forkner violated the wire fraud statute, the government needed to prove that Forkner intentionally participated in a scheme to defraud through the use of interstate wires (i.e., telephones or internet), and that the false or misleading statement or omission Forkner made was material. The government argued that Forkner had made false statements to the FAA in order to defraud airline customers of millions of dollars.
However, Forkner’s attorneys told a different story. They told the jury that Boeing’s engineers had not provided Forkner with information concerning changes they had made to the flight-control system, which meant that statements made to the FAA were false, but that Forkner did not know the statements were false when he made them. His attorneys also said that Forkner was being scapegoated by Boeing in an attempt to shift blame and save face with the public. Forkner’s attorneys added that the allegedly negative statements about the flight-control system which Forkner privately made to a colleague were actually complaints about the flight simulator itself and not the flight-control system. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Forkner of the charges.
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