New Ethics Investigation by Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office Underscores Potentially Outsized Influence of Boeing

Issues
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Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane
Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane. Photo by Joe A. Kunzler Photo, AvgeekJoe Productions, via Creative Commons

In recent weeks, speculation and criticism have swirled around the relationship between Boeing Group and government decisions related to aviation safety and government contracts—and whether Boeing’s financial interests have been prioritized over the public’s safety.

Following the fatal crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was one of the last national authorities to ground the Max 8 planes, despite mounting evidence that the crash could have been related to faulty sensors specific to that make and model of Boeing aircraft.

The delay raised red flags because Boeing is one of the biggest influence-peddlers in Washington. It has spent hundreds of millions on lobbying. Its PAC distributes millions of dollars each election cycle, and its contributions skyrocketed as the Max 8 scandal developed.

Boeing itself donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee. Boeing also actively swings the revolving door: for example, former Trump cabinet official Nikki Haley has been nominated to serve on Boeing’s board, and former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan is acting defense secretary.

Boeing’s long-term influence efforts have paid off. The company receives more federal money than almost any other corporation as the country’s second-largest contractor, and it has managed to get the FAA to delegate some of its crucial safety certification responsibilities to Boeing officials.  

Now, the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Inspector General (IG) has opened an investigation into whether Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan broke ethics rules by improperly favoring Boeing in his official duties.

Shanahan worked for Boeing for over 30 years before joining government, and he promised to recuse from matters involving Boeing unless he was granted written permission to participate.

Media reports have raised questions about certain DoD actions related to Boeing and Shanahan’s own conduct while in office. The Pentagon awarded Boeing a $400 million contract days after Shanahan was tapped for the DoD job.

The Pentagon also requested Boeing fighter jets for the Air Force over Air Force’s objections, potentially because of Shanahan’s influence; the deal has the potential to reap more than a billion dollars per year for Boeing.

The IG’s investigation could reveal to what extent Shanahan’s Boeing connections played a role in these decisions.

Shanahan himself also appears to have repeatedly disparaged one of Boeing’s major contracting competitors, Lockheed Martin, in internal discussions, while singing the praises of his former employer.

This conduct has been characterized as a possible illicit use of public office to endorse Boeing, to induce his subordinates to confer benefits on Boeing, and to signal favoritism toward Boeing for future government contracting opportunities.

This is not the first time that the revolving door between the federal government and Boeing raised ethics flags.

In 2004, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force, Darleen Druyun, was sentenced to nine months in prison for helping Boeing win billions in taxpayer-funded contracts while negotiating jobs at the company for herself and family. 

 

Delaney's work focuses on government ethics, accountability, and transparency.