A Washington metallurgist has pleaded guilty to major fraud after she spent decades faking tests on steel used to build subs for the U.S. Navy. Federal prosecutors say that her behavior put sailors at greater risk in the event of an impact.
Elaine Thomas was employed by Kansas City-based Bradken Inc. as the director of metallurgy at a foundry in Tacoma, notes the U.S. Department of Justice. The company is the nation’s leading supplier of cast high-yield steel for Navy submarines. The Tacoma foundry supplied steel castings for Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding for use in building submarine hulls.
Back in 2017, Bradken learned that Thomas falsified the results of strength and toughness tests for at least 240 productions of steel. The Navy requires that steel meets certain strength and toughness standards to ensure it holds up to situations like impacts. These tests are supposed to show that the steel meets the grade.
How bad was it? According to the Justice Department, Thomas faked the tests from 1985 through 2017 and those 240 productions add up to a “substantial percentage” of the steel produced for the Navy from the foundry.
It gets worse from there, from the Associated Press:
When confronted with the doctored results, Thomas told investigators, “Yeah, that looks bad,” the Justice Department said. She suggested that in some cases she changed the tests to passing grades because she thought it was “stupid” that the Navy required the tests to be conducted at negative-100 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the Navy Times, even her own attorney said that she took shortcuts.
She was only caught when another metallurgist noticed inconsistencies in Thomas’ records, including the doctored test cards. Bradken disclosed the discovery to the Navy but misled investigators by trying to make them believe the discrepancy wasn’t the result of fraud.
The Justice Department notes that Bradken still invoiced shipbuilders for parts that were supposed to meet standards when they did not.
In June 2020 Bradken entered into a deferred prosecution agreement accepting responsibility and agreeing to overhaul its quality control, compliance and oversight. It also paid out $10,896,924 for a civil settlement for allegations that the foundry sold substandard steel to Navy shipbuilders.
As for Thomas, she faces a $1 million fine and up to 10 years in prison when she gets sentenced in February. The Justice Department says it will recommend the low end of whatever the court decides for a sentencing range.
Thankfully, while prosecutors argued that she put sailors at risk with her behavior, the Navy says that it has taken extensive steps to ensure the safe operation of the affected submarines. It will also continue to monitor the parts built with the substandard metals. In addition, there were no allegations that any hull had failed.