A chemist in a state forensics lab in Massachusetts was found to be mishandling evidence seized in drug cases, possibly jeopardizing hundreds of convictions. The reaction was swift and sure, and people were held accountable.
The chemist left her job, control of the lab was shifted from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to the state police, and the state attorney general’s office launched an investigation. Most recently, the state Public Health Commissioner resigned over the matter.
Oh, what a difference a couple of miles can make. Compare Massachusetts’ open and decisive handling of its scandal to how Connecticut is dealing with its own mess at the state forensics laboratory in Meriden, whose problems are far more severe than a single chemist gone rogue.
In 2011, Gov. Dannel Malloy, to his credit, formed a committee in response to the forensic lab losing accreditation and being banned from using a federal DNA database. During scrutiny of the Connecticut lab, employees came forward with reports of discrimination and harassment. There was evidence of a huge testing backlog and failure to follow established procedure and policies.
The efficient functioning of the lab is vital to police, prosecutors, the defense bar and, ultimately, the court system because of its key role in evaluating countless pieces of physical, genetic and digital evidence.
Until now, few people knew that I was instrumental in obtaining the FBI report delineating the lab’s deficiencies and bringing the matter to the governor’s attention. The committee was my idea. My placement on the committee came about because I requested it, and also because I am qualified. I am a digital forensics expert who worked at the lab for many years and I currently own my own firm.
So, when I say that I am disappointed by the committee’s actions to date, I am both knowledgeable and qualified to say so.
Seventeen people were appointed to the committee. Among them was Reuben Bradford, the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (which formally oversees the lab); the lab’s director at the time; a state police officer in charge of the lab; and a former state police officer who had previously been in charge of the lab.
There was also a former FBI agent, Michael Wolf, a former special agent in charge of the New Haven office.
At first, committee meetings were open to the public. When it became obvious that the problems at the lab were more grave than initially thought, meetings were suspended until further notice. However, committee members were encouraged to speak to each other on the phone and meet in smaller groups. We were told this would “avoid FOI,” meaning that the committee’s work wouldn’t be subject to public scrutiny.
A selection process for a consultant, including interviews, was conducted without input from the committee as a whole. We were called to a meeting with less than 24 hours’ notice and asked to approve the selection of Frederick Bieber, a medical geneticist from Harvard. When it was brought up that he had never done any forensic science administration work, the observation was resoundingly dismissed.
Afterward, the consultant’s activities were never shared with the committee as a whole, but, to my knowledge, with only a few remaining members.
Maybe there is a report that was shared with committee members. Maybe there was a press release and e-mail that I missed. But I don’t think so. A Freedom of Information request has been filed with the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. The department had not responded as of late last week.
For an administration that campaigned on a platform of transparency, I didn’t see any.
From the beginning, I wondered what a former FBI agent with no forensic lab administration or scientific skills was doing on the governor’s committee. When former Agent Wolf was named interim director of the lab last month, I was even more concerned.
FBI agents are great at what they do. But running a criminal investigation and overseeing a crime lab require two entirely different skill sets. A brain surgeon probably wouldn’t be your first choice to be CEO of a major hospital.
The state is now looking for a permanent lab director. The written qualifications — which were apparently not reviewed because the announcement was published with typographical errors — were that the applicant have some sort of degree in forensic science or a related field and have either 10 years in managing a forensics lab or 10 years criminal investigative experience with experience managing a forensic lab.
So someone with a master’s degree in forensic investigations, 10 years in criminal investigations and a half-hour of experience managing a forensics lab qualifies to carry on the work of someone like the great Dr. Henry C. Lee? Those hardly seem like the professional skills needed to take over the helm of the Titanic and guide her safely ashore. But it does sound remarkably similar to the qualifications of the current interim director.
All of the members of the committee, as well as the governor’s administration, have stated repeatedly how serious they are in addressing the lab’s operational problems. However, I don’t hear any reports of improved morale at the forensics lab. Instead, this whole series of events has rattled the workers.
As highly-educated, specialized professionals, lab personnel spend their entire careers working in the same place, often for the same supervisor. Relationships and the working environment are everything. The people there have dedicated their lives to the lab and the tension there is palpable. It has been for years.
Hopes were high when the governor’s committee was appointed last year. Now I hear a lot of doubt and disappointment. The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection leadership says fear of change is leading to morale issues. I disagree. I believe, a solid majority of lab personnel (who I don’t speak for, but I have polled many of them) would embrace change. But they want change that is forward thinking, not what would have been considered forward thinking 30 or 40 years ago.
Few people at the lab believe that the appointment of former Agent Wolf as lab director is temporary. Whether or not the appointment actually is temporary is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the lab personnel do not trust a process that was conducted in secrecy and they will not trust a result that fails to address many issues that led to unethical conduct and other recent problems at the lab.
At the very least, a good old-fashioned investigation by legitimate state authorities would have brought some credibility to the proceedings. Maybe those of us in search of accountability should move north to Massachusetts.•