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Wednesday, April 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Expected guilty plea new slap to tanker deal

By Seattle Times wire services

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WASHINGTON — A former Boeing executive's plan to plead guilty to conspiracy next week could further set back the Air Force's $23.5 billion deal for air tankers.

Darleen Druyun, who worked as an Air Force procurement officer before becoming a senior vice president at Boeing, will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy, according to court documents.

Druyun and former Boeing Chief Financial Officer Michael Sears are under investigation for possible corruption and conflicts of interest related to the Air Force plan to lease and buy Boeing refueling planes.

The two were fired in November by the aerospace company, which said they violated ethics rules by discussing a Boeing job while Druyun was still working on Boeing issues at the Air Force.

The tanker deal is on hold pending Pentagon reviews, an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the criminal inquiry.

"You're talking about conspiracy, which implies the involvement of more than one person," said one Senate aide. "There is every indication that more indictments and/or possible plea bargains might be in the offing."

Given the circumstances, Druyun could share information with prosecutors about other Air Force or Boeing officials who helped to negotiate the tanker deal, said sources familiar with the investigation, but they had no details of her plea.

A guilty plea from Druyun would boost critics of the deal, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has complained that the Air Force and Boeing developed an inappropriately friendly relationship during the negotiations.

After Druyun and Sears were fired, the Pentagon ordered an inspector general's audit of the deal. The results, released last week, found no compelling reason not to proceed with the program, but the report criticized how the Air Force negotiated the deal and recommended changes.

The procurement strategy the Air Force pursued put the Pentagon "at high risk for paying excessive prices and profits and precludes good fiduciary responsibility for DOD funds," the report said.

A "criminal case cover sheet" at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., shows Druyun faces a single felony count of conspiracy, with a plea hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
 
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"When a plea-agreement hearing is scheduled, it means someone is coming in with the intention of pleading guilty to a charge," said one source familiar with the case.

Druyun has not been charged but faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy count. Plea agreements can collapse, even at the last minute, but sources familiar with the case said Druyun was cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Lawyers for Druyun and Sears declined comment, as did a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty.

A spokesman for Boeing declined to comment about Druyun but said "the company has been cooperating with authorities since we uncovered inappropriate conduct involving our hiring practices and responded accordingly."

Information from Reuters and The Washington Post is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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