Military crime lab manager accused of retaliation

McClatchy NewspapersJune 26, 2011 

WASHINGTON — When Richard Tontarski Jr. arrived at the military's crime lab in 2007, it was still reeling from revelations of misconduct by two of its own. Tontarski brought with him an impressive resume and reassuring promises of raising the lab's standards.

Since then, Tontarski has become one of the main sources of controversy. Fellow employees at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory have filed three complaints against him. Those involved in the disputes accuse him and other managers of punishing employees who raise valid concerns.

"My view of the lab is as lacking moral leadership and tolerating evidence of discrimination and conflicts of interest," said Peter Lown, an attorney for the employees who've filed complaints against Tontarski.

Tontarski, the chief of the forensic analysis division, didn't return calls requesting comment. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command, which oversees the lab, said it couldn't legally comment on employee claims.

In military and court documents, Tontarski says subordinates are attacking him unfairly and that he's merely trying to improve the lab.

The disputes began in 2008, when he recommended hiring a nonprofit organization to handle a new training contract, according to the documents.

The chief of the lab's firearms branch, Donald Mikko, objected, saying the training wasn't needed and was too costly.

"I questioned it a hundred times," he later told investigators.

The lab's attorney, Lisa Kreeger, complained that Tontarski appeared to be trying to steer the contract to the National Forensic Science Technology Center, military and court records show. The nonprofit organization was headed by a longtime friend, and Tontarski's wife was an unpaid board member. In a separate arrangement, she was paid to work on one of the center's contracts, according to Tontarski's testimony in an inquiry into the matter.

Tontarski acknowledged that it created a "perception of conflict of interest," but said he didn't think it should prevent the group from getting the contract. He called the allegations that he was steering the contract for his or his wife's benefit "absurd."

"I tried to find the right people to do the right job," he testified.

Military contracting officials told lab officials that the potential conflict could be addressed if the lab could justify entering into a sole-source contract, which doesn't require full competitive bidding.

The lab's lawyer disagreed.

"What is this sole source B.S.?" Kreeger was quoted as saying to Mikko. "I thought this was dead."

When Tontarski heard Kreeger was questioning his role, he was outraged.

"I no longer see that 'Lisa is trying to do the right thing,' " he wrote in an email to the lab's director, Larry Chelko. "She slandered me to one of my subordinate supervisors."

In the end, military officials concluded that Tontarski had done nothing wrong.

"It seems that Mr. Tontarski's only 'crime' was to attempt to provide a better and quicker service," they wrote in a summary of their inquiry.

Since then, one of the lab's main contractors, ANSER, has hired the nonprofit group as a subcontractor to oversee new employee training.

Officials of the National Forensic Science Technology Center said the prime contractor handled the arrangements so "we don't know who is involved." Tontarski said he had no role in it.

The center's officials said they couldn't say how much the new subcontract was worth nor how much Tontarski's wife had made working for them because of non-disclosure agreements.

Nonetheless, accusations continued to mount.

In February 2010, Tontarski, who's white, was a target of a complaint, this time that he'd discriminated against a black employee.

Once again, Mikko and Kreeger, who also are white, were at the center of the dispute, raising questions about his actions. Once again, Tontarski vehemently denied the allegations.

In May, Tontarski concluded that Mikko should be suspended for recommending the black employee for a permanent job along with another candidate who also didn't get the position.

"Your recommendation goes beyond poor judgment," Tontarski wrote in his notice to Mikko. "It shows a willful bias."

Tontarski had launched an investigation after Mikko filed a claim against him and testified in the conflict-of-interest investigation.

"Why do you punish a guy for giving someone undue preference when that applicant was never hired to begin with? And why you do it more than two years after the fact?" attorney Lown asked. "The answer is retaliation."

The Army Criminal Investigation Command also launched an investigation of Kreeger. Last July, investigators concluded that she'd "engaged in professional misconduct" by discussing the racism allegations with co-workers but not her supervisors. Investigators also proposed notifying her state bar of the misconduct finding.

Senior military officials later reversed it. By then, Kreeger had resigned.

In May, the Army command leveled new accusations against her: document theft. The lab recently tried to locate legal records to respond to journalists' questions about misconduct by two former analysts, but discovered that they'd disappeared.

Military officials warned Kreeger that if she'd taken the documents, the maximum penalty would be a fine, three years in prison or both.

Her attorney charged harassment.

"It is understandable given the difficulties the agency has faced in recent days — perhaps through mismanagement — that the people responsible for such mismanagement would seek to find a scapegoat," lawyer Charles Evans wrote. "However, in this instance, perhaps you should direct your accusatory gaze inward."

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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