A Washington state-based metallurgist has pleaded guilty to fraud after fabricating the results of strength tests on steel used in US Navy submarines for more than 30 years.
According to federal prosecutors, 67-year-old Elaine Marine Thomas of Auburn, Washington falsified strength and toughness results in at least 240 tests between 1985 and 2017 - claiming that the steel met the Navy's strength requirements when in fact it did not. Thomas, who was charged with one criminal count of major fraud against the United States, was the director of metallurgy at a Tacoma foundry which was acquired by Kansas City-based Bradken, Inc., the Navy's leading supplier of high-strength steel used in submarine hulls.
The tests, often conducted at -100 degrees Fahrenheit, represented nearly half of Bradken's high-yield steel produced for use in Navy submarines.
Thomas was busted after a junior metallurgist being groomed as her replacement reported suspicious test results, after which she was immediately terminated. The fraud was admitted to after a special agent from the Department of Defense's Criminal Investigative Service confronted Thomas with evidence dating back to 1990.
"Yeah, that looks bad," she said, according to the criminal complaint, which added that she thought conducting tests at such cold temperatures was "a stupid requirement."
Thomas faces up top 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine when she's sentenced in February.
While the affected vessels were not disclosed by authorities, there was no indication in the initial complaint that any submarine hulls had been compromised. That said, it would be interesting to know if any of the compromised metal was used in the USS Connecticut, which collided with an underwater mountain in the South China Sea on Oct. 2, injuring 11 crewmembers and causing an undisclosed amount of damage. Built between 1992 and 1997 by General Dynamics, the Connecticut underwent a hull inspection in 2019 as part of a $17 million project at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
The falsified reports came to public attention in June 2020, when Bradken paid a $10.9 million fine as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Department of Justice. The company learned of the deception in 2017, however they found themselves in hot water after initially suggesting that the discrepancies were not the result of fraud. The lie reportedly hindered the Navy's investigation into how widespread the problem was, along with efforts to determine what risk it had put sailors in.
"Bradken placed the Navy’s sailors and its operations at risk," Seattle U.S. Attorney Brian Moran said last year. "Government contractors must not tolerate fraud within their organizations, and they must be fully forthcoming with the government when they discover it."
Thomas's lawyer, John Carpenter, said in a statement filed in federal court on Monday that his client "took shortcuts and made material misrepresentations."
"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," the statement continues.
"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."