Beyond missteps, military crime lab roils with discontent

McClatchy NewspapersJune 26, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The military's premier crime lab should be a place of sober scientific research, but lately it seems more like the set of a soap opera consumed with scandal and intrigue.

In less than four years, at least six internal investigations have been launched and six complaints filed against managers. The accusations and counter-accusations include racism, sexual harassment, assault and fraud.

The disputes have embroiled top managers and pitted them against one another. The lab's former lawyer says she was retaliated against for blowing the whistle. The military counters that she made off with official records.

Amid the upheaval and finger-pointing, a lab analyst was convicted of embezzling almost $70,000 from a professional association to pay for his gambling addiction.

"The place is a rat's nest," said Mike Jellison, a former firearms examiner who worked at the lab for 14 years. "It's not conducive to science."

Interviews and thousands of pages of court and military documents that McClatchy obtained reveal a litany of concerns about the lab where analysts handle evidence from all the military branches. Each year, about 3,000 criminal cases are processed at the facility called the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.

Acrimony and backbiting permeate the lab, military officials have found. Employees accuse the lab of protecting bad managers and ignoring serious complaints such as conflict of interest and waste. Prompted by the swirling allegations, the military ordered sensitivity training for lab officials and conducted an employee survey to assess conditions.

"There are perceptions that managers are biased for a variety of reasons," Army Col. Eric Belcher concluded after one inquiry in 2009 that described a brewing problem with "extremely bad relationships between managers."

Military officials, however, continue to back the lab's top officials, including its longtime director.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command, which oversees the lab, described it as "an exceptional organization, staffed by talented and committed scientists and managers."

In a statement, the CID said it couldn't legally discuss the employee claims: "In short, individuals may bring their side of the story to the media but CID cannot respond."

However, the statement said it takes "all credible allegations of wrongdoing and misconduct very seriously and continue(s) to take appropriate actions when and where warranted."

Last week, command officials sent an investigator to determine whether missing records that detailed the misconduct and forensic mistakes at the lab had been destroyed or stolen. The Army realized that the documents had disappeared from the lab when it began responding to McClatchy's questions about two discredited analysts.

Separately, the Defense Department's inspector general confirmed last week that he was conducting an inquiry into the lab's handling of one of the analysts' misconduct at the request of Sens. Charles Grassley, R- Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Started in 1943 by two soldiers at the Allied front in North Africa, the lab now has 180 employees in Fort Gillem, Ga.

Evidence in the military's highest-profile investigations has been analyzed there — from the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of former NFL player Pat Tillman to the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

Five years ago, however, misconduct by two analysts tarnished the lab's reputation.

A McClatchy investigation revealed in March that one of the analysts, Phillip Mills, was found to have falsified a report, prompting a three-year, $1.4 million retesting of his cases. The lab concluded that he'd made dozens of mistakes, often when testing evidence in rape cases.

Making matters worse, the crime lab didn't always inform defense attorneys about mistakes, including evidence testing that wrongfully convicted defendants.

Since then, the accusations of impropriety have only multiplied, court and military documents show.

At one point, misconduct by an employee prompted an FBI search of one of the lab's offices. The investigation resulted in the arrest of Allen Southmayd, a 63-year-old handwriting expert.

Southmayd had a serious gambling problem, court records indicate. After he joined the lab in 2000, he began to write checks to himself from a professional organization where he served as treasurer. He spent the money from the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners at casinos. In 2007, the group caught on and Southmayd resigned from the lab. He pleaded guilty to embezzling in federal court and was sentenced to probation.

To some, the morale problems began when the Army tapped chemist Larry Chelko in 1993 to be the lab's first civilian director and began replacing most of its military examiners with civilians. Although many of the lab's first civilian hires were former soldiers and Army investigators, many of the younger hires have no military background.

"In the military, the mindset is different," said Jellison, a former Army warrant officer. "It's mission first. The military does what the military tells it to do and things run smoothly."

"Now it's a military lab, but it's run by civilians," said Jellison, who recently decided against returning to the lab as a civilian. "I loved working there at one point but the people in management don't want any ex-military people there, period."

John Cayton, a retired Army investigator who ended up taking the job Jellison turned down, said he noticed hostility not only toward retired soldiers but also older workers. He resigned within months.

"I didn't feel welcomed," he said.

Lab officials have denied trying to weed out employees with military backgrounds.

"The focus is to hire qualified folks, and because they're in the military doesn't mean they're qualified," the lab's chief of the forensic analysis division, Richard Tontarski Jr., testified in an inquiry.

Other divisions have emerged.

After a black temporary employee, A.D. Bell, was passed over for a permanent position, the lab's lawyer, Lisa Kreeger, testified in May 2010 that she'd overheard a manager make a racist remark about him.

Donald Mikko, the chief of the firearms branch, backed Kreeger, alleging that his boss resisted hiring Bell because he's black.

Lab officials have denied the allegations, saying Kreeger misheard the remark. They point out that when the director confronted Kreeger about her claim, she conceded that she might have misheard it.

But a Defense Department investigator found merit in the discrimination claim, concluding, "Management has not articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the action contested."

Kreeger and Mikko have filed their own complaints, alleging that officials retaliated against them.

Fueling the racism charges, other African-American employees raised concerns about several comments by whites, from an examiner telling a black IT worker in an email that he had "banana breath" to insinuations that the black employees were less educated, the lab's director testified in Bell's discrimination lawsuit.

Belcher, the investigator who raised concerns about lab management, pointed out that only 9 percent of the "technical side" of the lab was black.

"A concerted effort should be made by the lab to increase diversity," he wrote.

Some former and current employees say officials have made matters worse by obsessing over damage control and punishing employees who raise concerns. After a recent series of articles by McClatchy chronicled the mistakes and misconduct by two analysts, the lab held a meeting in June to "set the record straight" and, according to several people familiar with what was said, implied that discussing the lab's problems with the news media could violate military conduct codes. The sources asked to remain anonymous for that reason.

Recent hires have only worsened morale, the employees said.

W. Mark Dale, a former director of the New York State Police laboratory system, was hired to oversee training despite a recommendation by New York's inspector general in 2007 that he be criminally investigated for a scandal there. He was accused of keeping secret misconduct at the lab and mistakes by a discredited analyst. He was never prosecuted.

The managers, who've been accused of stoking the resentment at the Army's lab, say they're being unfairly attacked themselves by disgruntled employees who are unable to keep up with modern science and high standards

Col. Martin Rowe, the chief of the lab's expeditionary forensics division, who's observed the disputes since he joined in 2009, testified that he'd noticed "half-truths circulating" and a "general lack of communications." He dismissed the tensions as due to "growing pains."

But the conflicts don't appear to be resolved.

Managers and employees argue for hours in closed-doors meetings. Adversaries exchange countless accusatory emails. At times, confrontations spill into the lab's hallways.

One female lab technician became upset when a male examiner put a lab brush in her lunch pail. An employee she'd accused of sexual harassment years before had used the brush. Ordered to apologize, the examiner appeared to grab her. Investigators concluded that it constituted assault. The examiner resigned.

Some employees have claimed that the tense environment has made them ill. Mikko testified in one ongoing lawsuit that another midlevel manager and war veteran appeared to have developed post-traumatic stress disorder "severe enough a 59-year-old man who has served God and country and his organization for years (was) literally in tears and shaking."

(Michael Doyle and Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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