(Reuters) -A Texas jury on Wednesday found a former chief technical pilot for Boeing (NYSE:BA) not guilty of deceiving federal regulators who approved the company’s 737 MAX jet which later was involved in two crashes that killed 346 people.
Former Boeing pilot Mark Forkner was indicted in October on charges of misleading U.S. regulators about a key flight control system and defrauding Boeing’s U.S.-based airline customers of tens of millions of dollars by withholding information when they made their purchase decisions.
The government alleged Forkner deceived the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during its evaluation of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplane, which received FAA certification in 2017.
Forkner, who had faced up to 20 years in prison on each of four counts, maintained his innocence and contended prosecutors were making him a scapegoat. The short trial began Friday in Texas.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Joshua Stueve, said, “While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s verdict. The Justice Department stands by the hard work of the prosecutors and our law enforcement partners in investigating and trying this case.”
David Gerger, a lawyer for Forkner, in a statement praised the “independent, smart, fair judge and jury.” The FAA and Boeing declined to comment.
The two crashes cost Boeing more than $20 billion and led to the plane’s 20-month grounding until November 2020. Boeing was charged in 2021 with fraud conspiracy over the issue and agreed to pay $2.5 billion in a deal to avoid prosecution.
The government had alleged Forkner provided the FAA Aircraft Evaluation Group with “materially false, inaccurate, and incomplete information” about a new part of the flight controls for the jet called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
MCAS was tied to two fatal 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia. But the government did not charge Forkner with causing those accidents.
Prosecutors pointed to one message Forkner sent to a colleague in which he said he “basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)” about MCAS operations.
Families for the crash victims have objected to the Boeing settlement. In opposing their request that a judge overturn the deal, the Justice Department last month said its investigation did not produce definitive evidence on the cause of the crashes.
Forkner is the only person criminally charged to date in connection with the MAX. The Justice Department in 2021 said the misconduct at Boeing was not facilitated by senior management.