A retired metallurgist charged with testing the strength of the steel used to construct the hulls of US Navy submarines has admitted to falsifying over 200 test results over a 32-year period.
On November 8, 2021, the Department of Justice announced that 67-year-old Elaine Thomas of Auburn, Washington had plead guilty to falsifying test results for over 240 different steel productions during her time as the Director of Metallurgy at a foundry in Tacoma, Washington. The steel made up about half of that produced by the company for the Navy, and was used by contractors General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding.
Thomas worked at the steel foundry from 1977 to 2017, during which time it repeatedly failed to produce steel that met the Navy‘s standards for toughness and strength. According to the DoJ’s complaint, Thomas falsified test results between 1985 and 2017, “with the intent to defraud the United States Navy.”
The tests were intended to show the steel would not fail in a collision or in certain “wartime scenarios.” As such, the falsified results caused shipbuilding contractors to install substandard components on their submarines, “thereby potentially placing naval personnel and naval operations at risk.”
While The Associated Press reported there are no allegations that any submarines built with the steel have experienced failures to their hulls, authorities did say the Navy has experienced increase maintenance timelines and costs to ensure they remain seaworthy.
The DoJ has not disclosed which submarines were affected.
In a statement filed in the US federal court for the Western District of Washington, Thomas’ lawyer, John Carpenter, admitted his client “took shortcuts,” but didn’t intend to cause harm to the submarines, nor was she motivated by personal greed:
“Ms. Thomas never intended to compromise the integrity of any material and is gratified the government’s testing does not suggest that the structural integrity of any submarine was in fact compromised,” he wrote. “This offense is unique in that it was neither motivated by greed nor any desire for personal enrichment. She regrets that she failed to follow her moral compass – admitting to false statements is hardly how she envisioned living out her retirement years.”
Thomas’ actions came to light in 2017, when a metallurgist being trained to replace her noticed suspicious test results and alerted Bradken Inc., which took ownership of the foundry in 2008. Thomas was subsequently fired and the Navy informed of the issue. However, the company wrongfully suggested the errors weren’t the result of fraud, hindering the official investigation into the scope of Thomas’ discretions.
When confronted about the results, Thomas reportedly told investigators, “Yeah, that looks bad,” and suggested that in some instances she changed the results to passing grades because she felt it was “stupid” the Navy required tests be conducted at negative-100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thomas is scheduled to be sentenced on February 14, 2022. Under her guilty plea, she faces up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The DoJ has said it will recommend a low-end prison term for whatever the court determines is the standard sentencing range in her case.
Bradken Inc. has already taken responsibility for the falsified steel tests. Under a June 2020 agreement, it agreed to pay out a $10.9 million settlement.