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Former Boeing pilot indicted for fraud in 737 Max airplane investigation

Boeing 737 Max returning to the sky after fatal crashes
Boeing 737 Max approved to fly again after fatal crashes 01:41

A federal grand jury indicted a former chief technical pilot for Boeing on multiple counts of fraud for deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration as it evaluated the company's 737 Max airplane, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday. Mark A. Forkner, 49, is also accused of scheming to defraud some of the airline's customers of tens of millions of dollars for Boeing. 

"There is no excusing those who deceive safety regulators for the sake of personal gain or commercial expediency," inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation Eric J. Soskin said in a statement Thursday.

Forkner, who was in charge of the 737 Max Flight Technical Team, allegedly provided the FAA's Aircraft Evaluation Group with "materially false, inaccurate and incomplete" information regarding a new software tool for the Boeing 737 Max, according to the prosecution. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System was designed by the company to better the stability of an airplane, but in 2016, Forkner allegedly discovered an important change to the system without relaying it to federal safety regulators. Because Forkner withheld the updated information, the new tool was not referenced in airplane manuals and pilot-training materials, court documents allege. 

As a result of Forkner's alleged deception, Boeing's airline customers in the U.S. "were deprived of important information when making and finalizing their decisions to pay Boeing tens of millions of dollars for 737 Max airplanes," the prosecution said.

"Forkner allegedly abused his position of trust by intentionally withholding critical information," assistant attorney general of the justice department's criminal division Kenneth A. Polite Jr. said. "In doing so, he deprived airlines and pilots from knowing crucial information about an important part of the airplane's flight controls."

The FAA's Aircraft Evaluation Group began investigating Boeing's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System after a 737 Max plane crashed in Indonesia in 2018, killing 189 people. Months later, another 737 Boeing Max plane crashed near Ejere, Ethiopia, killing 157 people. Both planes crashed shortly after takeoff and the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System was operating in the moments before the crash, according to prosecutors.

Following the fatal crashes, all 737 Max planes were grounded in the United States. 

Forkner is charged with multiple counts of fraud: two for involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud. If convicted, the former pilot will face up to 20 years behind bars for every count of wire fraud, and 10 years for each count of fraud for aircraft parts in interstate commerce. 

The former pilot's lawyer, David Gerger, told CBS News that Forkner did not lie and that he should not be charged. 

"This tragedy deserves a search for the truth — not a search for a scapegoat," Gerger said on behalf of his client. "If the government takes this case to trial, the truth will show that Mark did not cause this tragedy, he did not lie, and he should not be charged."

Gerger urged those "who know the truth" to help Forkner by contacting his office. "Now is the time to help the truth come out," he said. 

Forkner was expected to make his first court appearance in Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday.

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