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Navy subs steel test results were faked for decades, metallurgist admits, pleading guilty to fraud

Elena Marie Thomas, who worked for a foundry that supplied steel used to make submarine hulls, faked the results of strength tests on the steel.

The Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Vermont is christened at Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., on Oct. 20, 2018.
The Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Vermont is christened at Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., on Oct. 20, 2018.
Sean D. Elliot / The Day via AP

SEATTLE — A metallurgist in Washington state has pleaded guilty to fraud after she spent decades faking the results of strength tests on steel that was used to make U.S. Navy submarines.

Elaine Marie Thomas, 67, of Auburn, Washington, was the director of metallurgy at a foundry in Tacoma that supplied steel castings used by Navy contractors Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding to make submarine hulls.

From 1985 through 2017, Thomas falsified the results of strength and toughness tests for at least 240 productions of steel — about half the steel the foundry produced for the Navy, according to her plea agreement, filed in federal court in Tacoma. The tests were intended to show that the steel wouldn’t fail in a collision or in certain “wartime scenarios,” the Justice Department said.

There was no allegation that any submarine hulls failed, but authorities said the Navy had incurred increased costs and maintenance to ensure they remain seaworthy. The government didn’t disclose which subs were affected.

Thomas faces up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine when she is sentenced in February. But the Justice Department said it would recommend a prison term at the low end of whatever the judge determines is the standard sentencing range.

In a written statement filed in court on her behalf, attorney John Carpenter said Thomas “took shortcuts” but “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. 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’ conduct came to light in 2017, when a metallurgist being groomed to replace her noticed suspicious test results and alerted their company, Kansas City-based Bradken Inc., which acquired the foundry in 2008.

Bradken fired Thomas and initially disclosed its findings to the Navy but then wrongfully suggested that the discrepancies weren’t the result of fraud. That hindered the Navy’s investigation into the scope of the problem and also its efforts to remediate the risks to sailors, prosecutors said.

In June 2020, the company agreed to pay $10.9 million under a deferred-prosecution agreement.

Confronted with the doctored results, Thomas told investigators, “Yeah, that looks bad,” the Justice Department said.

She said 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.