Tue, 20 Aug 2019

Boeing 737 Max latest: Friends in high places

News24
20 Jul 2019, 22:13 GMT+10

The crashes of two Boeing Co. 737 Max jetliners have put the aerospace giant on a perilous course through multiple U.S. investigations. But as it faces off against the government, Boeing will be dealing with a lot of familiar faces.

The myriad personal connections between the US plane-maker and top officials were hinted at when Attorney General William Barr bowed out of a criminal investigation of the plane's design and certification. Barr cited his past affiliation with Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a longtime legal adviser to Boeing that's now helping with its defense in the matter.

Several other Trump administration officials have personal or professional ties to Boeing's man at the center of the drama. He's J. Michael Luttig, the longtime general counsel whom the company reassigned to lead its 737 response.

When he was a federal appellate court judge, Luttig brought on dozens of promising young clerks who are now spread throughout the judiciary and beyond. In more than a decade at Chicago-based Boeing, he stocked his department with ex-government lawyers. He also tapped Kirkland, which has a big Chicago presence, for matters as varied as acquisitions and contract disputes.

It's little surprise, then, that the executive and judiciary branch of the US government is dotted with Luttig friends, associates and proteges.

Veterans

Christopher Wray, who once clerked for Luttig, is now the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; in that role, Wray oversees the agents who are interviewing Boeing engineers. Several others have ties to Kirkland, a favoured firm of Boeing under Luttig. At least four top Justice Department officials are Kirkland veterans, including Barr, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, whose Criminal Division oversees one of the crash probes. The department's prosecutors will ultimately decide whether to take action against the company or its officials.

Luttig, 65 years old, is wired into the Supreme Court, too. He was a groomsman at the wedding of US Chief Justice John Roberts.

His influence remains deep after three decades at the center of US conservative legal circles. As the 737 Max controversy swirled, Luttig did some informal advising to the White House. He was quoted in articles over the past month suggesting how President Donald Trump's administration might satisfy Supreme Court concerns about its push to add a citizenship question to the U.S. Census.

Challenge

Boeing said there is no conflict of interest, or appearance of conflict, for Luttig in the matter.

Huge stakes

Powerful corporations have long handed their stickiest affairs to lawyers who have experience at high levels of the Justice Department or White House. As the Boeing matter shows, a great deal of influence now rests with a knot of former Kirkland lawyers atop the Justice Department. Their ties to one another could raise recusal questions in other matters as well.

Boeing's clout has extended to administrations of both political parties; the plane-maker is among the nation's largest exporters, a massive manufacturing employer and a symbol of American technological prowess. President Barack Obama famously joked that he deserved a gold watch for helping close international sales.

About a year into Trump's presidency, former Boeing officials began to inhabit key slots in his administration. John Demers, one of Boeing's Washington lawyers, was confirmed to run the Justice Department's National Security Division. Former Boeing executive Pat Shanahan became acting defence secretary and was Trump's pick in March for the permanent role, until he withdrew from consideration.

Luttig gained a reputation as a feeder judge to career-making clerkships, and top-flight law students sought to work for him, said David Lat, founder of the Above the Law website and managing director of Lateral Link, a legal recruitment firm. Among his former clerks are Senator Ted Cruz, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and the FBI's Wray.

Luttig's clerks also benefited from his relationships with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom he'd been a clerk in the 1980s, as well as Justice Clarence Thomas and retired Justices David Souter and Sandra Day O'Connor - all three of whom Luttig helped prepare for confirmation hearings. Luttig himself was passed over three times for a seat on the US Supreme Court during the George W. Bush administration.

Rising star

If Rosen worked on Boeing's defence team at any point, he must recuse himself under department rules. Justice Department employees also have to remove themselves from matters involving a client of their former law firm for two years after leaving the practice. Because Rosen left Kirkland in March 2017 to become a senior adviser and then deputy to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, he wouldn't have to recuse himself under this rule.

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