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Metallurgist falsified US Navy sub steel strength tests for 32 years

The Virginia-Class attack submarine USS Hawaii undergoes routine inspections and repairs in Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. (Photo by Liane Nakahara, U.S. Navy/Released)
November 09, 2021

A metallurgist whose job was to test the strength of the steel used in U.S. Navy submarines, has admitted to falsifying hundreds of steel tests over a 32-year period.

The Department of Justice announced on Monday that Elaine Thomas, 67, of Auburn, Washington, pleaded guilty to falsifying strength and toughness test results for over 240 different steel productions during her time working as the Director of Metallurgy at Bradken Inc.

According to the DOJ’s complaint, Thomas worked at a Tacoma, Wash. steel foundry between 1977 and 2017. During that time period, the foundry had repeatedly failed to produce steel that could meet the Navy’s standards for strength and toughness. Between 1985 and 2017, Thomas falsified test results for over 240 steel productions “with the intent to defraud the United States Navy.”

Thomas’ falsified test results caused prime shipbuilding contractors to install substandard components on its submarines “thereby potentially placing naval personnel and naval operations at risk.”

The Associated Press reported there are no allegations that any submarines experienced failures to their hulls as a result of using the faulty steel, but authorities said the Navy experienced increased costs and maintenance timelines to ensure the submarines would remain seaworthy.

It is unclear just how many submarines employed the faulty steel that Thomas certified.

In a statement, filed in the U.S. federal court for Western District of Washington on Thomas’ behalf on Monday, attorney John Carpenter admitted his client “took shortcuts” but that it was not her intent to cause harm to any U.S. submarines, nor was she motivated by personal greed.

“Ms. Thomas never intended to compromise the integrity of any material and is gratified that the government’s testing does not suggest that the structural integrity of any submarine was in fact compromised,” Carpenter 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.”

With her guilty plea, Thomas is now scheduled to face sentencing on February 14, 2022. She faces a $1 million fine and up to 10 years in prison for the charge of committing major fraud against the U.S.

Major fraud against the U.S. encompasses acts of fraud with a value of $1 million or more.

Bradken Inc., the company that took ownership of the Tacoma foundry in 2008, already took responsibility for the falsified steel strength tests and agreed to pay out a $10.8 million settlement in a June 2020 agreement.