Metallurgist admits faking steel-test results for Navy subs

SEATTLE (AP), A metallurgist from Washington state pleaded guilty Monday to fraud after spending decades falsifying the results of strength tests on steel used in making U.S. Navy submarines.
Elaine Marie Thomas (67), was a director of metallurgy in a Tacoma foundry that provided steel castings for Navy contractors Electric Boat, Newport News Shipbuilding, to build submarine hulls.

According to her plea agreement filed Monday at U.S. District Court, Tacoma, Thomas falsified strength and toughness results for at least 240 steel productions between 1985 and 2017. This is about half of the steel that the foundry produced in support of the Navy. According to the Justice Department, the tests were meant to prove that steel will not fail in collisions or in "wartime scenarios".

Although there was no evidence that any sub-marine hulls had failed, authorities stated that the Navy had increased maintenance and costs to keep them seaworthy. The government didn't disclose the subs that were affected.

Thomas could face up to 10 years imprisonment and a $1million fine when she is sentenced. The Justice Department stated that it would recommend that Thomas be sentenced to a term of imprisonment at the lowest point of what the court decides to be the standard sentencing range for her case.

John Carpenter, her attorney, stated that Thomas "took shortcuts" in a U.S. District Court statement filed Monday on her behalf.

"Ms. Carpenter wrote that Thomas did not intend to compromise any material's integrity and was pleased that government testing didn't show that any submarine's structural integrity had been compromised. Carpenter wrote that this offense was unique because it was not motivated by greed or any desire to gain personal enrichment. She regrets not following her moral compass. Admitting to false statements was not how she imagined living her retirement years.

Thomas' behavior was discovered in 2017 when a metallurgist who was being trained to replace her noticed suspicious results. They alerted their company, Kansas City-based Bradken Inc. which purchased the foundry in 2008.

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Bradken fired Thomas, and first disclosed its findings to Navy. However, it later incorrectly suggested that the discrepancies weren't due to fraud. Prosecutors said that this hindered the Navy’s investigation into the extent of the problem and its efforts to mitigate the risks for its sailors.

The company reached an agreement with a deferred prosecution agreement of $10.9 million in June 2020.

Thomas said to investigators that the results were manipulated. She suggested that she altered some of the passing grades in cases because she felt it was stupid that the Navy required that tests be performed at a temperature of negative-100 degrees Fahrenheit (negative-73.3 Celsius).