Former Boeing pilot says FAA official called him 'scapegoat' for crashes

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WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - A former chief technical pilot for Boeing Co (BA.N) charged with fraud for deceiving federal regulators evaluating the company's 737 MAX jet says a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official called him a "scapegoat" for two fatal crashes.

Lawyers for Mark Forkner said the FAA official with personal knowledge of the 737-MAX contacted the government and said Forkner "is a 'scapegoat' and should 'not be charged.'" The court filing on Monday did not disclose the official's name.

Boeing did not respond to a request for comment. The FAA did not immediately comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Northern Texas, where the case is being heard, declined to comment.

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The filing also included parts of a PowerPoint from an unnamed FAA employee that defense lawyers said contain new disclosures about a key system known as MCAS that should have been disclosed by Boeing’s engineering team.

The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) is a software feature designed to automatically push the airplane’s nose down in certain conditions. It was tied to two crashes of the 737 MAX in Indonesia and Ethiopia over a five-month period in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people and led to the FAA's grounding the plane for 20 months, an action lifted in November 2020.

The filing said Boeing engineers did not disclose key details of MCAS to Forkner or the FAA - including that MCAS could activate when it was not intended after a single faulty sensor.

The PowerPoint said the 737 MAX crashes "were caused by a failure of the engineering processes" and argued the focus on training and the Forkner criminal charges "is not only incorrect and misguided, it is detracting from the real lessons."

Excerpts of the presentation made public said it was to address a "potential miscarriage of justice."

Lawyers asked a U.S. judge to allow current or former FAA officials permission to talk with Forkner's defense team ahead of a trial set to begin in February. A redacted filing appears to show Forkner's team wants to talk to two current officials and a former FAA employee.

Forkner was indicted in October on six counts of scheming to defraud Boeing's U.S.-based airline customers to obtain tens of millions of dollars for Boeing. His lawyers said they have not been allowed to speak to the PowerPoint author.

According to the indictment, Forkner, largely in the run-up to the FAA's decision to approve the 737 MAX in 2017, provided the FAA Aircraft Evaluation Group with "materially false, inaccurate, and incomplete information" about MCAS. He has pleaded not guilty.

In January, Boeing agreed to a $2.5 billion deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department over the MAX crashes, which cost Boeing more than $20 billion.

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Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney

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