Lab Agency Clearly Has A Conflict
What would happen if an investigator from the state auditor's office, who was once a high-ranking official in another state agency, was given the task of auditing his or her former agency?
Do you think there might be a bit of public outcry about a conflict of interest? Do you think auditors' offices around the country have policies to prevent this sort of thing?
The answers: yes and yes.
Yet, for a number of years, state law-enforcement officials batted nary an eye when it came to a lab-accrediting agency headed and managed by former SBI lab technicians accrediting the very lab where they once worked.
Since 1995, the accrediting group responsible for signing off on SBI lab procedures, ASCLD-LAB, has been headed by Ralph Keaton. For 30 years, Keaton worked for the SBI.
The accrediting group is located in Garner, outside Raleigh, less than 10 miles from the main SBI lab.
North Carolina legislators have now turned their attention to the troubled lab, where published reports show lab technicians either exaggerated or misstated findings in criminal cases. In some instances, technicians seemed to hunt for the results wanted by prosecutors.
An independent review ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper found questionable results in 229 cases.
The poor standards have led to at least one wrongful murder conviction. They may also cause a quagmire of court appeals, not to mention undermining the courtroom credibility of future lab results.
Last week, state legislators suggested that the SBI lab may need a new accrediting agency.
That caused cries of foul from Keaton. He told the Associated Press that legislators require a fuller understanding of the accreditation process and how lab procedures have evolved.
He says he's ready to talk to legislators.
"There's not a lab in the country that could have measured up to the standards we have today 25 years ago," Keaton said. "I think the accreditation process we have today is extremely robust and meets all the needs of a quality lab."
Chris Swecker, the former FBI agent who helped conduct the independent review for Cooper, sees it differently.
"I went into it thinking it was the gold standard," Swecker told legislators. "I now think it is a minimum standard."
Maybe Keaton is right and Swecker is wrong. Maybe the process does meet the needs of a lab. But it obviously doesn't meet the needs of justice.
So either the standards are poor or they are largely worthless when it comes to ensuring that the SBI produces good science and then transfers that science to the courtroom.
But even if that weren't the case, ASCLD-LAB's standards don't seem very high on the conflict-of-interest front.
An accrediting agency managed by three former SBI officials should never have been signing off on the procedures of a lab where they once worked.
Maybe some scientists need study in another field - ethics.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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