Special Reports

Translators forced to take DEA polygraphs awarded $4 million in damages

A federal jury awarded $4 million to nine former translators after they were forced at the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration to undergo illegal lie-detector tests.

The San Diego jury determined that a DEA contractor, Metropolitan Interpreters and Translators Inc., should be required to pay damages to its former translators in a rare rebuke of the federal government’s reliance on lie-detector tests. The verdict on Tuesday comes after a federal judge determined the tests violated federal law and the DEA separately agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the lawsuit, although the translators were contract workers.

“This case showed that the polygraph is unreliable, especially when it’s administered in this way,” said Gene Iredale, the attorney for the plaintiffs. “The case also suggested discrepancies in how the DEA relied on polygraph.”

The jury was only determining whether Metropolitan should be required to pay damages, not the DEA. Even so, the jurors concluded that 40 percent of the “non-economic” damages was caused by the DEA and 60 percent by the company. As a result of the shared liability, the translators may only be entitled to less than the $4 million. The jury also considered adding to the award by levying punitive damages, which it declined to do on Thursday.

An employee who answered the phone but declined to identify herself said Metropolitan would not be commenting. The company provides translation services to private companies, law enforcement and government agencies. It has offices in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta and Washington.

The contract employees had translated Spanish conversations collected during court-authorized wiretapping of the DEA’s criminal suspects. Metropolitan fired them after they failed or refused to take the polygraphs that the DEA had demanded.

Last October, however, a federal judge ruled that by mandating the tests the company violated a 1988 law banning most private employers from requiring polygraphs.

Requiring employees or job applicants to take lie-detector tests is controversial because of scientific questions about the reliability of the technique and complaints that it’s too invasive. Most criminal courts do not permit polygraph results to be used as evidence against criminal suspects because of doubts about whether the tests can actually determine if someone is lying.

In urging the jury to require the company to pay damages, Iredale described financial hardships his clients experienced after being fired by Metropolitan.

Iredale said his clients were ashamed because they were asked very personal and even alarming questions about their lives, including about their sexual practices and whether they were guilty of crimes such as bestiality. They also were terrified during the tests because they were unfairly accused of lying, he said.

“They suffered the humiliation and the anxiety and the pain and the blow to their reputation by being told, ‘You can’t work in a DEA facility anymore,’” Iredale said Monday during closing arguments.

“Each and every one of the people here in court felt ashamed for doing nothing wrong because somebody said to them, ‘You know what? The little machine says you’re not telling the truth,’” he said.

Before being polygraphed, the translators had undergone credit checks, screening interviews and criminal background checks. None of the workers had 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 or had refused to take them.

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

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 the pair contingent on the DEA’s re-screening. Three other settlements are confidential.

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 allows many federal agencies to polygraph employees and applicants.

More than 20 federal agencies polygraph employees and applicants 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.

But the law also lists only certain intelligence and law enforcement agencies as being permitted to test their contractors. It does not list the DEA.

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

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.

Related stories from McClatchy DC