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Airline went into records after Max crash, engineer says
By BERNARD CONDON | Mon, October 7, 2019 11:34 EDT
SEATTLE (AP) — Ethiopian Airlines’ former chief engineer says in a whistleblower complaint filed with regulators that the carrier went into the maintenance records on a Boeing 737 Max jet a day after it crashed this year, a breach he contends was part of a pattern of corruption that included fabricating documents, signing off on shoddy repairs and even beating those who got out of line.
Yonas Yeshanew, who resigned this summer and is seeking asylum in the U.S., said that while it is unclear what, if anything, in the records was altered, the decision to go into them at all when they should have been sealed reflects a government-owned airline with few boundaries and plenty to hide.
“The brutal fact shall be exposed … Ethiopian Airlines is pursuing the vision of expansion, growth and profitability by compromising safety,” Yeshanew said in his report, which he gave to The Associated Press after sending it last month to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other international air safety agencies.
Yeshanew’s criticism of Ethiopian’s maintenance practices, backed by three other former employees who spoke to AP, makes him the latest voice urging investigators to take a closer look at potential human factors in the Max saga and not just focus on Boeing’s faulty anti-stall system, which has been blamed in two crashes in four months.
It’s not a coincidence, he said, that Ethiopian saw one of its Max planes go down when many other airlines that fly the plane suffered no such tragedy.
Ethiopian Airlines portrayed Yeshanew as a disgruntled former employee and categorically denied his allegations, which paint a blistering counterpoint to the perception of the airline as one of Africa’s most successful companies and a source of national pride.
Yeshanew alleged in his report and interviews with AP that Ethiopian is growing too fast and struggling to keep planes in the air now that it is carrying 11 million passengers a year, four times what it was handling a decade ago, including flights to Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. He said mechanics are overworked and pressed to take shortcuts to get planes cleared for takeoff, while pilots are flying on too little rest and not enough training.
And he produced an FAA audit from three years ago that found, among dozens of other problems, that nearly all of the 82 mechanics, inspectors and supervisors whose files were reviewed lacked the minimum requirements for doing their jobs.
Yeshanew included emails showing he urged top executives for years to end a practice at the airline of signing off on maintenance and repair jobs that he asserts were done incompletely, incorrectly or not at all. He said he stepped up his efforts following the Oct. 29, 2018, crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia that killed all 189 people on board. One email Yeshanew sent to CEO Tewolde Gebremariam urged him to “personally intervene” to stop mechanics from falsifying records.
Those pleas were ignored, he said. And after the March 10, 2019, nosedive crash of an Ethiopian Boeing 737 Max outside Addis Ababa that killed all 157 people on board, Yeshanew said it was clear the mindset had not changed.
Yeshanew said in an interview that on the day after the crash, Ethiopian’s Chief Operating Officer Mesfin Tasew openly agonized that the airline could get blamed because of its maintenance “issues” and “violations,” and he ordered that records on the downed Max plane be checked for “mistakes.”
“We pray to God that this will not point to our fault,” Yeshanew Quote: d the COO as saying.
That same day, Yeshanew said in his report, someone logged into the computerized maintenance record-keeping system, specifically on the records from the downed plane that detailed a flight-control problem — “a roll to the right” — that pilots had reported three months earlier. Yeshanew included in his report a screenshot of a directory of the records related to the problem that showed a final entry that was time-stamped March 11.
Yeshanew said he didn’t know what was in the records previously or if they were changed, only that the records were left to say that tests had been done and the issue had been resolved. While he doubted that the flight-control problem brought the plane down, he said any changes to the records would call into question the actual condition of the airplane at the time of the crash as well as the integrity of the airline as a whole.
Aviation experts say that after a crash, maintenance records — specifically, log books and task cards containing notes by pilots and fixes by mechanics — are required by international air safety regulators to be immediately sealed off, and any attempt to manipulate them is a serious violation tantamount to trampling on a crime scene.
“If there is an accusation that you went into records, it means you’re hiding something, you have something to hide,” said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and an expert in aircraft maintenance.
In its response to AP, Ethiopian denied a history of tampering and shoddy maintenance, and denied its COO or anyone else ordered someone to change the maintenance records on the downed 737 Max. It said that as soon as the accident happened, those documents were sealed, stored in a secure place and delivered to Ethiopia’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau. It added that while “a technician tried to see the aircraft records,” its review found no data was changed or updated.
Ethiopian is Africa’s biggest airline, is profitable and is one of only a few on the continent that have passed the tests necessary to allow their planes to fly into Europe and North America, with a relatively good safety record.
The company confirmed Yeshanew served as director of aircraft engineering and planning but said he was demoted because of a “serious weaknesses in leadership, discipline and poor integrity.”
“He is a disgruntled ex-employee who fabricated a false story about Ethiopian Airlines, partly to revenge for his demotion while working in Ethiopian, and partly to probably develop a case to secure asylum in the USA,” the airline said in an email to AP. “We would like to confirm once more that all his allegations are false and baseless.”
Yeshanew and his attorney, Darryl Levitt, said that he was never demoted and, in fact, his steady rise through the ranks over a 12-year career at Ethiopian continued even into this year when he was tapped to oversee a new venture making aircraft parts and investigate two pilots who botched a landing in Uganda and nearly skidded into Lake Victoria. Yeshanew said his recommendations after that incident — fewer inexperienced pilots in cockpits and better training — went unheeded.
Yeshanew also attached internal emails to the report that he contends show faulty paperwork and repairs, and investigations from parts suppliers that point to similar errors, including ones that led to two cockpit windows shattering in flight, a de-icing mechanism burning, and missing or incorrect bolts on key sensors.
“I personally saw that many task cards are signed without even doing what is written in the instruction,” Yeshanew wrote to COO Tasew in 2017. “Such violations may even result in a serious safety issue.”
Others have made similar claims. In 2015, an anonymous employee told an FAA safety hotline that mechanics often cleared planes for takeoff with “unresolved” mechanical issues. It was unclear if the complaint led to any action by the FAA or the airline.
Three other former Ethiopian employees made such allegations to AP, including one who provided documents that he said show faulty repairs and paperwork errors stretching back years, and another who said mechanics felt they had no choice but to “pencil whip it” — industry jargon for signing off on repairs never done.
“They would actually lie about it,” said Franz Rasmussen, who flew for the airline for two years before leaving in 2016. “There was a philosophy: You can’t ground an airplane — it’s go, go, go.”
Among the allegations in Yeshanew’s report is that Ethiopian maintains a jail-like detention center on the grounds of its Addis Ababa headquarters that it used to interrogate, intimidate and sometimes beat up employees who got out of line. Yeshanew said he knows of at least two mechanics beaten up in the past three years after falling out of favor with the company, and he feared the same fate awaited him.
Yeshanew said in the report and later interviews with AP that he was taken to the single-story, dirt-floored detention center in July on suspicion he was talking to news organizations, and after 10 hours of questioning was told he would be thrown into jail “like all the other persons before” him if he didn’t keep quiet. He took that as a threat of torture.
“If you are in jail, it means you’ll be beaten, you will be tortured,” he told AP. “There is no difference in the current political system of Ethiopia.”
Four days later, Yeshanew fled to the U.S. with this wife and two children and settled in the Seattle area.
A former spokesman for the airline union, Bekele Dumecha, told AP that he met with more than a dozen workers over six years who had been beaten at the same detention center, including one of the alleged victims identified by Yeshanew. Dumecha said he saw that person an hour after he was released, bruised and staggering.
“He couldn’t walk properly,” said Dumecha, who is now living in Minnesota and also seeking asylum. “He was mentally and physically destroyed.”
Human Rights Watch said in an April report that torture in jails and “unmarked detention centers” have long been a “serious and underreported problem” in Ethiopia, and its former researcher there said he personally interviewed three airline workers who alleged they were tortured by the government, the most recent three years ago.
“It was all about ensuring the positive image of the company and the country is kept intact,” said HRW researcher Felix Horne. “Many people who tried to speak out against government-controlled companies were inevitably thrown in prison and beaten up.”
In its statement, Ethiopian Airlines denied that a detention center for torture exists and offered to show an AP reporter around the grounds. But after AP sought such a tour this past week, Ethiopian officials said it would take several weeks to arrange.
Yeshanew’s allegations are the latest to cast a light on factors other than what has become the overriding focus of the Max crash investigations — a system on the plane called MCAS, for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, that automatically pushes the plane’s nose down when it is at risk of stalling.
Preliminary reports indicate it misfired in both fatal crashes, with pilots losing control of the planes as they fought against it. Regulators have grounded nearly 400 737 Max planes while Boeing tries to fix the problem.
Another whistleblower from Ethiopian, veteran pilot Bernd Kai von Hoesslin, told the AP in May that after Indonesia’s Lion Air crash, he pleaded with Ethiopian’s top executives to give pilots better training on the Max, predicting that if pilots are not sufficiently drilled on Boeing’s protocols for how to disable the autopilot system in the event of a misfire, “it will be a crash for sure.”
Ethiopian has said the pilots followed all the steps Boeing laid out. But the preliminary report on the crash showed they deviated from the directives and made other mistakes, notably flying the plane at an unusually high speed and inexplicably reactivating the anti-stall system shortly after manually overriding it. Six minutes into the Max flight, the plane with passengers from nearly a dozen countries cratered into the ground about 40 miles from the airport.
For the 39-year-old Yeshanew, the decision to become a whistleblower has come at a heavy price. He is leaving behind relatives and a job that he called “the dream of my life,” one with prestige and a big enough salary for him to buy a three-story house. He is not sure of what kind of job he can get in the U.S., or if he will even be granted asylum.
Ultimately, he said, he has dreams of returning to his native Ethiopia and even going back to work at Ethiopian Airlines.
“I have to reveal the truth, the reality to the world, so that the airline will be fixed,” he said, “because it can’t continue like what it is doing now.”
Condon can be reached on Twitter at @BernardFCondon.
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Ex-officer not guilty of manslaughter in Georgia shooting
Sun, October 6, 2019 02:28 EDT
WOODBINE, Ga. (AP) — A former Georgia police officer who fatally shot a fleeing, unarmed black man was acquitted Saturday of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.
The jury, however, found Zechariah Presley guilty of violating his oath of office in the 2018 shooting of Tony Green, 33, in coastal Camden County near the Georgia-Florida state line.
Presley was ordered to be jailed pending sentencing Oct. 18. He faces a prison term of one to five years.
Presley sat silently at the defense table. Green’s relatives wiped away tears after the verdict was read.
Pastor Mack De’Von Knight, whose church Green attended, denounced the acquittals outside the courthouse, saying the evidence was “open and shut.”
“He admitted that he killed Tony Green in cold blood,” Knight said. “To me, it’s hunting season for the young black man and we’re being gunned down in the streets and there’s no repercussions, there’s no consequences for these officers.”
Though Presley’s body camera recorded his fatal encounter with Green, darkness and something covering the camera lens obscured the shooting and the moments leading up to it. That left the jury to weigh Presley’s court testimony recalling what had occurred with a sometimes conflicting account by prosecutors and investigators.
Presley said he followed Green’s car on the night of June 20, 2018, because he believed Green was driving with a suspended license. Dash camera video showed Green drive the car off the road, then open the door and run. He briefly returned to the vehicle to grab an unseen object, then fled again.
Presley chased Green on foot down a darkened street. A short struggle followed that’s not visible on the video. The recording picked up the electrified clicking sound from Presley’s Taser, followed by eight gunshots.
Another officer arrives afterward to find Presley lying on the ground. Presley says Green had been on top of him, trying to grab his Taser. Presley then says: “And then I was going for my gun, and he started taking off. And I fired.”
An autopsy found Green was struck by eight bullets — one to his chest, the rest to his back and hips. Green also had small amounts of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and a tranquilizer in his system.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Presley added details he had not mentioned previously. He said he opened fire after Green turned back to face him and extended an arm, saying he feared Green had a gun. Investigators determined the object in his hand was a cellphone.
Presley’s attorneys argued the shooting was justified because Presley believed his life was in danger.
“Tony Green was not shot because of misdemeanor offenses,” defense attorney Adrienne Browning said in her closing argument Thursday. “He was shot because of bad decision after bad decision, until the threat was overwhelming and Zech feared for his life.”
Prosecutors said jurors shouldn’t believe the revised account of the shooting Presley gave in court.
“He made a fatal mistake and it was a mistake that cost a man his life,” prosecutor Rocky Bridges said of Presley in his closing argument. “You don’t have to like Tony Green. … He ran from the police, not a good decision. But he was not armed. He did not turn on officer Presley. He did not deserve to die.”
The shooting of a black man by a white officer sparked protests by Green’s relatives and other black residents of Kingsland. They argued a manslaughter charge wasn’t severe enough for Presley, who was fired after the shooting. The grand jury that indicted Presley rejected charging him with murder.
This story has been corrected to show that Tony Green was 33, not 31, when he was killed.
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US appeals court to hear Mississippi 15-week abortion ban
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS | Sat, October 5, 2019 09:10 EDT
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Federal appeals court judges are set to hear arguments Monday over a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
It is one of many laws pushed by conservative states in recent years, ultimately aimed at trying to persuade the increasingly conservative Supreme Court to further restrict the time abortion is legally available.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed the 15-week ban into law in March 2018, and it has never taken effect. The state’s only abortion clinic immediately sued the state, and U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves temporarily blocked the law the day after Bryant signed it.
In November, Reeves struck down the law , writing that it “unequivocally” violates women’s constitutional rights because it bans abortion weeks before viability.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, said women have the right to terminate pregnancies until viability, when a fetus can survive outside the womb. Reeves wrote that viability must be determined by trained medical professionals, and the “established medical consensus” is that viability typically begins at 23 to 24 weeks after the pregnant woman’s last menstrual period.
The Mississippi clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, does abortions through 16 weeks, according to owner Diane Derzis.
In arguments Monday, attorneys for Mississippi will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Reeves’ ruling and let the law take effect, while attorneys for the clinic will argue that Reeves was correct and his ruling should stand.
The 5th Circuit handles cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, and it’s generally considered one of the most conservative appeals courts in the U.S.
Louisiana passed a 15-week abortion ban in 2018, but it becomes law only if a federal court upholds the Mississippi law.
Attorneys for the Mississippi clinic say in court papers that the panel of three appeals judges should focus on whether Reeves properly followed the Supreme Court precedent on viability.
The Mississippi attorney general’s office argues that Reeves should have let state lawyers develop a case asserting that a fetus at 15 weeks is “capable of experiencing pain.”
Bryant filed arguments separate from the attorney general’s office, and his were written by John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general.
“By prohibiting the taking of preborn life after 15 weeks gestation, Mississippi exercises its right to affirm the value of human life at all stages, but particularly at a stage when a preborn baby has all the physical attributes of a child after birth and only needs additional time to grow to survive outside its mother’s womb,” Bursch wrote.
The state also argues the risk of complications from an abortion increases the later it is performed.
Hillary Schneller, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, wrote on behalf of several clinic attorneys: “With respect to the State’s purported interest in maternal health, the Supreme Court has held that, until viability, it is for a woman, and not the State, to compare the risks of pregnancy and childbirth and abortion, among other factors, in deciding whether to terminate or continue a pregnancy.”
The Mississippi law would allow exceptions to the 15-week ban in cases of medical emergency or severe fetal abnormality. Doctors found in violation would face mandatory suspension or revocation of their medical license.
Even as the court fight continues over the 15-week ban, Mississippi lawmakers came back this year and passed another law to ban most abortions at about six weeks, when fetal cardiac activity can be detected. Reeves also blocked that law, saying it “smacks of defiance to this court.” Attorneys are filing separate arguments about it to the 5th Circuit. The hearing Monday is not expected to delve into the six-week ban.
Several states have passed laws seeking to ban abortion weeks before viability, and an Alabama law that’s scheduled to take effect in November would ban abortion with few exceptions. Schneller said in an interview Friday that the Mississippi case over the 15-week ban is the furthest along in the legal process.
“It’s important to remember none of the bans are in effect and abortion is legal in all 50 states,” she said.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
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North Korea decries breakdown of talks US says were ‘good’
By JARI TANNER and MATTHEW LEE | Sat, October 5, 2019 04:42 EDT
HELSINKI (AP) — North Korea’s chief negotiator said Saturday that discussions with the U.S. on Pyongyang’s nuclear program have broken down, but Washington said the two sides had “good discussions” that it intends to build on in two weeks.
The North Korean negotiator, Kim Miyong Gil, said the talks in Stockholm had “not fulfilled our expectations and broke down. I am very displeased about it.” Speaking outside the North Korean Embassy, he read a statement in Korean that a translator next to him read in English.
Kim said negotiations broke down “entirely because the U.S. has not discarded its old stance and attitude.”
Saturday’s talks were the first between the U.S. and North Korea since the February breakdown of the second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.
North Korea has since resumed missile tests, including an underwater-launched missile that fell inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone Wednesday.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Kim’s comments did “not reflect the content or the spirit” of the “good discussions” that took place over eight-and-a-half hours, adding that the U.S. accepted an invitation from Sweden to return to Stockholm in two weeks to continue discussions.
In a statement, Ortagus said the U.S. delegation “previewed a number of new initiatives that would allow us to make progress in each of the four pillars” of a joint statement issued after Trump and Kim’s first summit in Singapore.
“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” Ortagus said
Talks were held at the Villa Elfvik Strand conference facility in Lidingo, an island in the Stockholm archipelago located northeast of the capital, Swedish news agency TT said. It added that Kim Miyong Gil arrived on Thursday while U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun came on Friday.
Because the U.S. does not have official diplomatic relations with North Korea, Sweden has often acted as a bridge between Washington and Pyongyang.
Matthew Lee reported from Athens, Greece.
Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Austrian police: Man kills 5 in Alpine resort of Kitzbuehel
BERLIN (AP) — A 25-year-old man turned himself in to Austrian police Sunday after allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend, her family and her new boyfriend in the Alpine resort town of Kitzbuehel.
The Austrian news agency APA reported that the 25-year-old suspect, whose name hasn’t been released, admitted to the five slayings after turning himself in to police in the town east of Innsbruck, best known for hosting a famous downhill ski race.
Austria’s Kurier newspaper said the suspect had broken up with his girlfriend two months ago. He had bumped into her and her new boyfriend while out late Saturday night or early Sunday and had gotten into an argument.
At about 4 a.m. Sunday, he showed up at his ex-girlfriend’s family home. After her father opened the door, the suspect’s ex-girlfriend joined him and exchanged words with the suspect before he left.
The suspect then went home, retrieved his brother’s pistol and returned, according to police.
Police allege he shot the father as he opened the door, then shot his ex-girlfriend’s 25-year-old brother in his bedroom. After killing her mother, he found the door to his ex-girlfriend’s separate apartment, attached to the single-family home, locked.
He then went outside and climbed over a balcony into his ex-girlfriend’s room and killed the 19-year-old and her 24-year-old boyfriend, police said.