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She Gave the OK for Steel Used in Navy Subs. Now, a Guilty Plea

Retired metallurgist Elaine Thomas, 67, admits she falsified foundry's test reports on steel strength
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 9, 2021 7:37 AM CST
She Gave the OK for Steel Used in Navy Subs. Now, a Guilty Plea
This Oct. 20, 2018, file photo shows the christening of the USS Vermont at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn.   (Sean D. Elliot/The Day via AP, File)

For about four decades, Elaine Thomas worked as a metallurgist for a steel foundry in Washington state, churning out steel castings used by Navy contractors to make submarine hulls. And for about 30 of those years, prosecutors now say, Thomas falsified results from tests designed to test the steel's strength and toughness, which the 67-year-old retiree has finally come clean on, reports the New York Times. Thomas pleaded guilty Monday in a federal court in Tacoma to major fraud, conceding she fudged test results for more than 240 steel productions—or about half of all the steel produced by the foundry for the Navy, per the AP.

From around 1985 to 2017, Thomas "knowingly devised and executed a scheme with the intent to defraud" the Navy, an indictment in the case reads regarding what happened at the Tacoma foundry that was bought by Bradken Inc. in 2008. The indictment notes that Thomas, who was made the company's director of metallurgy in 2009, had started the scheme decades earlier, sometimes changing the first digit of test results on foot-pound numbers used to measure steel toughness and the "amount of dynamic force" it can endure.

Per court filings, it doesn't look like Bradken higher-ups got wind of what Thomas had done until May 2017, when a lab worker noticed something amiss in the records. Thomas was fired, and she then "made false statements" to federal agents to cover up what she'd done, per the indictment—though when investigators showed her what they'd found, the Justice Department says she conceded, "Yeah, that looks bad," per the AP. In 2020, Bradken took responsibility for the altered tests and forked over $10.8 million in a civil settlement.

"Ms. Thomas never intended to compromise the integrity of any material," her attorney notes in a statement, per the Times. "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 could see 10 years behind bars and have to pay a $1 million fine when she's sentenced. That ruling is scheduled for Feb. 14. As for the subs that may have used the affected steel, none appear to have failed, but the release notes "the Navy has taken extensive steps" to make sure they operate safely, with "increased costs and maintenance." (Read more fraud stories.)

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