updated 9/17/2004 9:22:54 AM ET 2004-09-17T13:22:54

A former Boeing Co. manager has reportedly agreed to plead guilty to charges related to the theft of sensitive documents from rival Lockheed Martin Corp. during a competition for a $1.88 billion satellite launching contract.

No documents have been filed in a Los Angeles federal district court but sources told the Wall Street Journal that an agreement has been reached between prosecutors and the former executive, Kenneth Branch. The plea bargain could strengthen the government's position in negotiating a corporate settlement with Boeing, the newspaper reported in its Friday editions.

Calls to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and Boeing headquarters in Chicago seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Branch is scheduled to go on trial in less than a month for allegedly conspiring to steal and pass sensitive documents to help Boeing win a multibillion-dollar competition for the U.S. Air Force's rocket-launch business in the fall of 1998.

Branch and William Erskine, another former Boeing Co. employee, were indicted last year for allegedly plotting to secure trade secrets from Lockheed Martin. Boeing fired the two men in 1999 after an internal investigation.

Court documents filed by the prosecutors allege that Branch was hired away from Lockheed Martin as "part of a deal" to "give Boeing data...that Boeing should not have."

Both men filed a wrongful-termination suit claiming Boeing got rid of them as part of a coverup effort. Lockheed Martin later filed its own suit accusing Boeing of stealing trade secrets and other improprieties. That suit is pending in federal district court in Orlando, Fla.

Charges filed against Larry Satchell, a third former Boeing official who remains a target of the investigation, have been dismissed on procedural grounds.

In 1998, after a competitive process, the Air Force awarded Boeing and Lockheed Martin contracts worth nearly $2 billion over the course of 28 missions from 2002 through 2008.

Last summer, the Air Force banned Boeing from future satellite launches to punish it for stealing extensive information from Lockheed Martin during the competition for the launch contract.

The Air Force probe found that Branch, Erskine and Satchell broke the law and barred them from participating in any future rocket contracts.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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