Grassley seeks investigation of military's errant crime lab

McClatchy NewspapersJune 30, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican is now seeking a broader investigation of the military's chief crime lab, even as Pentagon officials scramble to find out what's gone awry at the crucial facility.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command, which oversees the lab, is probing allegations that legal documents related to misconduct by two former lab analysts were missing. Separately, the command this week began scrutinizing the division in charge of evidence analysis in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department's inspector general also is looking at the lab's handling of the former analysts' misconduct.

But Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, citing a McClatchy investigation of the lab, said it's time for a thorough, top-to-bottom inquiry by the inspector general, an independent watchdog of the military.

"I'm asking the inspector general to address all of the many problems and concerns raised in the McClatchy articles, including the missing documents," Grassley said.

A longtime critic of federal law enforcement agencies, Grassley added this week that continuing revelations provide "more validation" for an earlier request he and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Chairman, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, made for a more narrow inquiry.

The two senators were initially alarmed because the lab did not inform all defendants implicated by evidence tested by the two former analysts. The analysts were found to have made mistakes and lied about those miscues.

On June 26, McClatchy also detailed multiple internal investigations and lawsuits against managers at the Atlanta-based U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, which handles evidence of all military branches.

CID has defended the lab and described its own investigations into the misconduct as thorough.

"Army CID and the USACIL take all credible allegations of wrongdoing and misconduct very seriously and continue to take appropriate actions when and where warranted," the agency said in a statement.

In the latest controversy, the military says it cannot locate documents that detail misconduct by former analysts Phillip Mills and Michael Brooks and has suggested the lab's former lawyer, Lisa Kreeger-Norman, may have them or may have destroyed them.

In a letter, CID warned Kreeger-Norman that she could face a fine or prison time if she tampered with the documents

The lawyer denies the allegations. Previously, she filed a retaliation lawsuit against the lab and her lawyer says the latest inquiry into missing documents is part of the continuing harassment.

Investigators, meanwhile, are asking lab employees whether they know if Kreeger-Norman or anyone else would have a reason to take the documents, said people familiar with the inquiry. They also questioned employees about how McClatchy received its information for its stories, these people said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of being punished for speaking publicly.

A CID spokesman wouldn't say why investigators were asking questions about media coverage, but in a statement insisted "with absolute certainty that CID does not have an investigation underway into 'leaks'."

"The issue of who may or may not be speaking with the media is irrelevant, and CID's only interest in this matter is to recover U.S. government property and take appropriate action where warranted," the statement said.

The military won't say how many documents disappeared or provide further details. But if crucial documents are missing, such as the results of the lab's $1.4 million retesting of Mills' tests, it could make it difficult for the lab to respond to questions from the inspector general.

The missing documents only further darken the atmosphere in a lab consumed with intrigue, court records obtained by McClatchy show.

Long-time lab director Larry Chelko, in a 2010 deposition, acknowledged that his deputy Richard Tontarski and Kreeger-Norman "don't get along." Lab Director Chelko further acknowledged that other lab employees had "grief" with Tontarski.

Tontarski, for his part, has complaints of his own. He said that he has "lost a lot of faith" in the ability of branch director Donald Mikko to make good decisions. Mikko, in turn, has filed a complaint, alleging Tontarski has retaliated against him for backing an examiner's discrimination lawsuit and testifying in an inquiry against Tontarski.

Firearms examiner Jerry Miller, said in a September 2010 deposition that while parts of the laboratory are "a good working environment," the enduring problems muddy morale.

"There are some good people in administration," Miller allowed in his deposition, "but right now it's really tough for me to separate the complaints and investigations and things that have been going on in that respect...I can't say I'm thrilled about that."

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