Quality assurance engineer pleads guilty to falsifying space parts reports

  • Published
  • By Barbara Burns
  • U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of New York

U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr. announced Feb. 5, 2020, that James Smalley, 42, of Penn Yan, N.Y., pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford to falsifying inspection reports for space parts. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

The plea resulted from a combined investigation by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), under the direction of Special Agent-in-Charge John Corbett, Central Field Office; the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, under the direction of Special Agent-in-Charge Wendell W. Palmer, Office of Procurement Fraud (Case agent was SA Lauren Corbet, AFOSI PF Detachment 5, Operating Location-D, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.); and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of Special Agent-in-Charge Gary Loeffert.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard A. Resnick, who is handling the case, said the defendant was a Quality Assurance Engineer at PMI Industries, LLC, a Rochester, N.Y., aerospace precision machining service, specializing in high-tolerance machining for flight critical aerospace parts used to build space flight vehicles by SpaceX and other Department of Defense aerospace contractors.

"With space representing our nation's next frontier, my office will remain vigilant to ensure that American ingenuity does not fall victim to indolence," noted U.S. Attorney Kennedy. "Failure to comply with quality control measures undermines the integrity of essential equipment and technology."

Smalley began his employment at PMI on March 6, 2017, working on contracts for SpaceX, which developed the Falcon launch vehicle family and the Dragon spacecraft family. Falcon and Dragon both currently deliver payloads into Earth orbit for NASA, the Air Force, other United States government agencies and private industry. SQA Services, Inc. SQA is a subcontractor to SpaceX, and provides multiple quality assurance functions within the aerospace and defense manufacturing industries.

In January 2018, an internal audit by SQA, at the direction of SpaceX, revealed multiple falsified source inspection reports and non-destructive testing (NDT) certifications from PMI Industries, LLC, for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flight critical parts. SpaceX notified PMI of the anomalies. Source inspections and NDT are key tools used in the aerospace industry to ensure manufactured parts comply with quality and safety standards.

Specifically, the signed source inspection report had a forged signature of the SQA inspector. SpaceX and SQA officials believed the signature of the inspector was photocopied and cut and pasted onto the source inspection report with a computer.

On Feb. 16, 2018, the NASA Launch Services Program alerted the NASA OIG, and Kennedy Space Center Resident Agency, regarding the falsified source inspection reports and false NDT certifications created by PMI. Some of the false source inspection reports and false NDT certifications were related to space launch vehicle components that, at the time of discovery, were to be used for the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission, which launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 18, 2018.

The investigation identified that Smalley, while an employee of PMI, falsified at least 38 source inspection reports for space vehicle parts procured by SpaceX for the construction of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy series of space vehicles. The investigation has also identified at least 76 individual piece parts that were rejected during source inspection or were never inspected by SQA, then subsequently shipped to SpaceX.

A records request from SpaceX identified seven NASA space flight missions, two United States Air Force space flight missions, and one National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration space flight mission that were affected by parts purchased by SpaceX from PMI.

Subsequently, SpaceX terminated its business relationship with PMI, which averaged approximately $200,000 per month from the business with SpaceX, as a disqualified supplier. PMI subsequently closed its operation.

Smalley’s sentencing is scheduled for May 13, 2020, at 2:00 p.m. before Judge Wolford .