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Boeing hearing is a moment of vindication for whistleblowers, but at a steep cost

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour on Capitol Hill, where the head of Boeing faced a withering barrage of questions this week in his first public testimony since a door plug panel blew out of a 737 Max jet in midair. The Senate hearing was a moment of vindication for whistleblowers who accuse Boeing and its suppliers of cutting corners when it comes to quality and safety. But some of those whistleblowers have paid a steep price for speaking up, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun testified before the Senate on Tuesday, he said the company is listening to whistleblowers, prompting this exchange between Calhoun and Senator Ron Johnson, Republican from Wisconsin.

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RON JOHNSON: You said you've listened to the whistleblowers. Have you directly spoken to any of the whistleblowers?

DAVE CALHOUN: I have not directly spoken to any of the whistleblowers.

JOHNSON: Do you think that'd be a good idea to do that?

CALHOUN: Yeah, I think it would.

JOHNSON: I'd recommend it.

ROSE: Whether Boeing is listening or not, these senators clearly are. More than a dozen whistleblowers have been in touch with the subcommittee that held this week's hearing, fueling its investigation into quality control problems at Boeing and its suppliers. The moment underscores how much whistleblowers can do to hold powerful companies accountable, and at the same time, how vulnerable they are to retaliation.

BRIAN KNOWLES: These are people of integrity. They're not doing this to hurt the company. They just see that something's not right, and they have to speak up.

ROSE: Brian Knowles is a lawyer who represents a number of whistleblowers at Boeing and its suppliers, including several who've given statements to the Senate. Knowles says aviation whistleblowers play a crucial role in bringing the truth to light, sometimes at great personal cost.

KNOWLES: Because these are people that want to do the right thing. They're ethical. Their ethics will not allow them not to speak up.

ROSE: Knowles represented the late John Barnett. The Boeing whistleblower said he faced extensive retaliation for raising quality concerns about the company's 787 factory in South Carolina. Barnett took his own life in March, according to the Charleston County Coroner. He had just given two days of depositions in his long-running lawsuit against Boeing. CEO Dave Calhoun was asked about the case at the hearing this week by Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: John Barnett went through two days of deposition. Have you read his deposition?

CALHOUN: Yes, I - yes.

BLUMENTHAL: What was your reaction?

CALHOUN: Heartbroken.

ROSE: Blumenthal also asked Calhoun this.

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BLUMENTHAL: How many of your employees have been fired for retaliating against whistleblowers?

CALHOUN: Senator, I don't have that number on the tip of my tongue, but I know it happens.

ROSE: Calhoun said Boeing employees have been fired and disciplined for retaliation, though he did not give a number or offer any examples. In reality, whistleblowers say retaliation is not unusual at Boeing and its suppliers.

VIRGINIA GREEN: Everything is mess, so...

ROSE: Virginia Green leads the way through the garage and into the house in Wichita, Kan., that belonged to her son, Joshua Dean. Dean worked at Spirit AeroSystems, a key Boeing supplier that makes the fuselage for the 737 at its factory here. Dean was fired from his job as a quality auditor at Spirit last year, he said, in retaliation for finding too many production errors.

GREEN: He was hurt, you know? He really liked working at Spirit. And he really loved being an engineer. And he just wanted things to be done right.

ROSE: Green says her son agonized about whether to go public with his concerns. In the end, Dean did give a deposition in a shareholder lawsuit against Spirit and spoke to the press, including NPR. He was just 45-years-old when he died unexpectedly in April after a fast-moving infection. Green says it was a shock because her son took good care of himself.

GREEN: Very strong, very healthy. He never got sick. All of this is just so weird.

ROSE: Dean's death prompted a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories, though Green is not convinced.

GREEN: I don't know if it's foul play - maybe not. He probably just got real sick. But I'm still bitter towards Spirit because if this hadn't of happened to him, he wouldn't be dead today.

ROSE: Green says losing the job at Spirit was crushing for her son.

GREEN: Think he was very down and depressed his last year of life. You know, he was devastated because he felt like his career was ruined. And, you know, he knew he couldn't go back to work for Boeing ever. He knew Spirit wouldn't take him back.

ROSE: A Spirit spokesman said, quote, "our thoughts are with Josh Dean's family," unquote, and urged anyone with concerns about its operations to, quote, "speak up, safe in the knowledge that they will be protected." Dean's decision to speak up despite the personal cost was an inspiration to one of his co-workers at Spirit.

SANTIAGO PAREDES: Josh as a person was a great person. He was a person that had integrity.

ROSE: Santiago Paredes worked with Dean at the Spirit factory in Wichita. Paredes was a quality inspector and says he also faced retaliation for reporting too many defects. Eventually, Paredes quit Spirit and went public with his concerns.

PAREDES: It's hard. And I haven't been sleeping well because of this, but it has to be done. If I can produce a change by speaking out, why not?

ROSE: When two whistleblowers die within a few months of each other, do you worry about your personal safety?

PAREDES: I don't worry about my personal safety. It's in the back of my mind. I can't be, you know, oblivious to it. But people's lives are at stake, and it has to be done. And if I don't do it, I don't want to wake up tomorrow and find in the news that another plane went down and feel guilty about it.

ROSE: It's not easy to take on a big company like Spirit or Boeing, but Paredes says that's the only way quality and safety are going to get better. Joel Rose, NPR News, Wichita, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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