Special Reports

Forcing court translators to take lie detector tests illegal, judge rules

A man being polygraphed in 2006
A man being polygraphed in 2006 MCT

At the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a leading court translation service forced its employees to take lie-detector tests in violation of federal law, a federal judge has found.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller concluded that the New York-based company, Metropolitan Interpreters and Translators Inc., was liable for requiring nine translators in San Diego to take what they described as highly invasive polygraph tests to keep their jobs as contractors with the DEA.

The ruling paves the way for a trial in which a jury will determine how much the company will have to pay in damages. Miller also found the company’s vice president, Joseph Citrano, liable. Five other translators already have settled with the company.

The decision, which was issued Oct. 24, comes after the DEA agreed to pay the 14 plaintiffs a total of $500,000 to settle the lawsuit. The contract employees translated Spanish conversations collected during court-authorized wiretapping of the DEA’s criminal suspects. Metropolitan fired the employees after they failed or refused to take the polygraphs.

A 1988 law banned most private employers from polygraphing their workers because of scientific questions about the technique’s reliability and after accounts of employer abuses.

“This ruling shows companies are responsible for their own actions when they violate the law,” said San Diego lawyer Gene Iredale, who represented the plaintiffs. “It also shows courts are ready, willing and able to enforce this law.”

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 still allowed the federal government to polygraph its employees and applicants. It also lists certain intelligence and law enforcement agencies as permitted to test their contractors. However, it does not list the DEA.

Metropolitan Interpreters and Translators Inc. didn’t return calls requesting comment. The company bills itself as the largest U.S. provider of translation services to private companies, law enforcement and government agencies. It has offices in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta and Washington.

Before being polygraphed, the translators had undergone credit checks, screening interviews and criminal background checks. They did not have access to classified information, Iredale said.

In a sudden shift in January 2011, however, the DEA demanded that the company send the translators in for lie-detector tests. The agency instituted the practice after discovering what the DEA described as a “leak” of wiretap information in San Diego, according to court records. As a result, it polygraphed about 100 translators from the company, and 27 of them were told they’d failed.

No one was ever found culpable in the leak and none of the 14 who ultimately sued were ever implicated, Iredale said.

The DEA polygraphers, however, asked the translators very personal and even alarming questions about their lives, including about their sexual practices and crimes such as bestiality, court documents said. Twelve of the plaintiffs were told they’d failed their tests and two refused to be polygraphed. The company then told them they weren’t permitted to work for the DEA and laid them off.

The DEA said in court documents that it was permitted to polygraph contractors because the law does not explicitly ban it. Even so, Miller permitted Iredale to proceed with the lawsuit and the agency settled.

According to public documents, the company separately agreed to pay more than $196,000 to one plaintiff and $93,000 to another and agreed to rehire them contingent on the DEA’s re-screening. Three other settlements are confidential. Two more employees have since filed suit.

The DEA’s settlement appeared to be the first time that a federal government agency had settled allegations involving contractors’ lie-detector tests since the passage of the 1988 law. The DEA did not acknowledge any wrongdoing, but it agreed to re-screen the plaintiffs without weighing lie-detector results.

More than 20 federal agencies are permitted to polygraph job applicants and employees to determine whether they’ve lied about their backgrounds, McClatchy has found. About 73,000 people a year undergo polygraphs to obtain federal security clearances. The U.S. government estimates that almost 5 million people have security clearances, although it doesn’t say how many have been polygraphed.

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