Long before latest DC crime lab troubles, some employees raised concerns

The Firearms Examination Unit of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences analyzes ballistics evidence. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

Over the past several weeks, senior leaders at the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences have come under intense scrutiny. The crime lab is under criminal investigation over its handling of a ballistics error in a murder case and, in a rare move earlier this month, a national forensic quality board yanked the lab’s accreditation to perform all forensic testing, bringing to an abrupt halt the processing of guns, DNA and fingerprint evidence amid a spike in homicides across the District.

As city leaders prepare to appear before a D.C. Council oversight roundtable about the lab’s troubles Thursday, WTOP has learned some former and current employees were concerned about DFS Director Dr. Jenifer Smith’s leadership long before the lab lost accreditation, and that some of them raised the matter with other officials in D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration.

Thursday’s oversight roundtable was expected to be the first time the public would hear from Smith since the lab had its accreditation suspended April 2, but WTOP has learned the agency director will not be testifying or answering council members’ questions.

The investigation into the D.C. lab doesn’t only involve claims of faulty science; it calls into question the integrity of senior leaders at the lab. A scathing report filed last month in D.C. Superior Court by a team of experts hired by prosecutors alleged that, in responding to the discovery of the error that linked two cartridge casings to the same gun, lab managers sought to conceal conflicting conclusions by multiple examiners and pressured others to report a finding of “inconclusive” on the matter. Prosecutors say four independent experts have since examined the disputed casings and determined they were not fired in the same gun.

For this report, WTOP spoke with the head of the union that represents DFS employees as well as eight current and former agency employees, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation either toward themselves or toward employees who are still employed by the agency.

Many of the employees expressed the view that Smith, a longtime FBI DNA expert who was appointed by Bowser to lead the agency in 2015, presided over a toxic workplace environment where employees feared being fired at any moment. Former employees said that environment bred a culture of fear where workers may have felt pressured to bury problems and not raise concerns, and managers seen as too critical or insufficiently loyal to Smith were pushed out.

‘Culture of fear’

In 2019, when Smith’s initial four-year term as director was nearing its end, WTOP has learned that at least two former DFS employees went to Kevin Donohue, then D.C.’s deputy mayor of public safety and justice, to share serious concerns about Smith’s leadership of the agency.

“I know the impact a bad leader can have on an organization,” one of the former employees told WTOP of their decision to speak with Donohue about their concerns. “Morale affects people’s ability to function effectively. When people have difficulty functioning, mistakes are more likely; carelessness is more likely. It’s not an environment for excellence.”

Another recalled telling Donohue that morale at the agency was low and people were afraid of losing their jobs due to rampant firings. “And that creates a culture of fear where no one comes forward when there is a quality issue,” the former employee told WTOP.

The employees did not share with Donohue any concerns that managers had concealed documents or pressured workers to change conclusions — allegations at the heart of the report that spurred the lab’s loss of accreditation.

Still, the former employees thought they delivered a clear message: They cautioned Donohue that they feared the organization would continue to deteriorate under Smith’s leadership and that officials, up to the mayor, would likely regret deciding to keep her in the job.

One of the former employees who spoke to Donohue about Smith’s leadership said they aren’t sure Donohue, who’s now the city administrator, “got it.”

In the end, Bowser reappointed Smith to another four-year term.

Olivia Dedner, a spokeswoman for the city administrator’s office, told WTOP that Donohue could not comment because the concerns involved a personnel matter.

DFS officials did not provide responses to a request for comment about the concerns shared by employees regarding the lab’s culture and several other points. Instead, Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart provided an emailed statement to WTOP that did not address the allegations of a negative workplace culture, but did discuss staffing at the agency.

Geldart’s statement in part read:

“The Department of Forensic Sciences works to recruit and maintain a diverse workforce of skilled scientists, forensic professionals, and support staff who are committed to the agency’s critical mission. As with any government agency with a highly qualified workforce, DFS employees have pursued career opportunities at other government agencies and the private sector, and the agency has recruited new staff with outstanding professional experience.”

WTOP has also learned that similar concerns were shared with at least two D.C. Council members, including Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Charles Allen, the chairman of the judiciary and public safety committee, who will hold the hearing Thursday.

In a statement provided by his spokesman, Allen told WTOP: “In the interest in protecting the confidentiality of persons who wish to share information with the Committee, we cannot verify more than to say the Committee has previously received confidential concerns regarding the management and workplace culture at the Department of Forensic Sciences. These concerns were raised to Executive branch leadership and have been used to inform our oversight in the past and in advance of this week’s hearing on the suspended accreditation of the lab.”

A spokeswoman for Mendelson told WTOP in an email that the chairman does not have oversight of the lab but that he “believes the concerns are credible.”

‘Caught dead in the middle of a catastrophe’

While other crime labs throughout the country have come under the microscope in recent years, the loss of accreditation is rare — and it has had bruising consequences for the D.C. lab.

Under the 2011 legislation establishing the Department of Forensic Sciences as an independent agency, the lab is required to maintain accreditation. For nearly a month, the lab’s examiners have been unable to test or examine evidence in new or existing cases, and the city is relying on private contractors and the support of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives to handle the lab’s work.

The caseload is enormous. In any given month, according to the agency’s most recent annual report, the lab’s Forensic Science Laboratory receives hundreds of requests to analyze evidence, including guns, cartridge casings and DNA swabs from crime scenes all over the city.

Employees are upset that the allegations against management and the loss of accreditation have now threatened their livelihoods, and worried that the accusations against the lab will follow them if they seek work elsewhere, according to the agency’s union.

“Day in and day out, they’re reporting to work with nothing to do,” said Lee Blackmon, the federal director of the National Association of Government Employees.

She added, “DFS employees are caught dead in the middle of a catastrophe.”

Blackmon said the union is now concerned that lab leadership appears to be trying to interfere with the ongoing criminal probe, which is being carried out by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

Last month, the agency’s general counsel, Todd Smith, no relation to the agency’s director, called a meeting of the lab’s firearms examination unit at which he reportedly told staffers the inspector general’s investigation was “unlawful” and that employees should inform him if agents request interviews or documents, according to a source who reported the meeting to the inspector general’s office. The source told investigators that Todd Smith said he was speaking on behalf of Dr. Smith, the lab’s director.

Blackmon called that meeting a clear attempt to “coerce employees” into not cooperating with the inspector general’s investigation, when in fact they have a duty to do so, she said.

“It says something about this unethical leadership that he would do that openly and in a group setting,” Blackmon said of Todd Smith’s meeting with employees.

In response to several questions from WTOP about Todd Smith’s meeting with employees, the statement from Geldart, the deputy mayor, said:

“We are fully committed to ensuring an independent and accredited forensics laboratory. We will continue to work with the Science Advisory Board, Office of the Inspector General, United States Attorney’s Office, Office of the Attorney General, and accreditation agencies, and have encouraged DFS staff to cooperate with ongoing investigations and reviews. Throughout this process, we have worked to ensure the uninterrupted collection and analysis of all forensic evidence so there is no impact on criminal cases. We plan to remain in this posture until regaining accreditation.”

‘Something changed’

For more than a year, prosecutors and the lab have been locked in an acrimonious legal battle over the lab’s handling of firearms evidence.

Federal prosecutors and the D.C. attorney general’s office retained a team of experts last spring to look into the lab’s firearms unit following the discovery of the error in the 2015 case.

In an exclusive interview with WTOP last fall, Dr. Smith defended her agency as a “darn good lab” and said the disputed 2015 finding had been thoroughly reviewed by the lab, prompting the change in finding to “inconclusive” and that the lab had instituted a whole series of reforms to make sure similar errors didn’t happen in the future. She said a broader dispute with federal prosecutors over the firearms unit’s casework stemmed from differences in interpretation that are common in some fields of forensic science. She suggested the lab’s “inconclusive” findings indicated its examiners were more conservative in reaching conclusions about evidence than prosecutors wanted.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the office of the D.C. Attorney General and the Public Defender Service are all expected to appear before the D.C. Council oversight roundtable Thursday.

The lab has been on embattled ground before. In 2015, Smith was brought in to the agency to clean up a past blunder by the lab. That year, the lab’s DNA practices were criticized by prosecutors; a follow-up audit by the same forensic board that earlier this month moved to strip the lab’s accreditation recommended a temporary pause on DNA casework until the lab’s analysts could be trained on improved methods. As a result, Bowser, then just a few months into her first term, sacked the lab’s former director and a slew of other agency officials.

The current suspension of the lab’s accreditation is much wider in scope than the 2015 audit. Despite that, Bowser has voiced support for the lab, telling reporters at a press conference on April 5 she wants an investigation into the allegations but that she was “fully defending” the lab’s practices.

Former employees described Smith to WTOP as smart, accomplished and committed —  someone who worked punishingly long hours at the office. When she first came to the agency amid the turmoil of the DNA issue, she pledged to revamp the agency.

“The first year that Dr. Smith was there, she was great to work with,” a former employee told WTOP. “She had a lot of great ideas. Then something changed. I can’t begin to tell you the emotional trauma people went through.”

Smith began managing “by fear and intimidation,” the former employee said. “Her management style stifled innovation at the lab. People feared being singled out.”

None of the employees said they saw evidence of concealing documents or pressuring employees to change conclusions. But the former employees said Smith had a bitter, adversarial relationship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and resisted disclosing quality issues and disciplinary matters, which some employees felt stretched the ethical lines.

A 2020 probe of the lab by the Fraud and Corruption Unit of the Justice Department, for example, included allegations that Smith pressured the agency’s former general counsel to soften discipline for employees accused of misconduct so they could still testify in court. After that report was filed, DFS wrote to D.C. court officials accusing the lab’s former general counsel of sharing confidential information with federal prosecutors and other serious misconduct.

In the end, the former employees said they believe the climate Smith fostered was a drain on quality control.

Several of the former workers WTOP spoke to are women, and they said they are sensitive to the impression that women bosses are sometimes held to a different standard in displaying anger and assertiveness.

“No one’s out to get this person,” a current employee told WTOP referring to Smith. The employee said they had seen firsthand Smith yelling and screaming at employees. Employees “want to work in an environment that’s safe and healthy,” the employee said. “They’re scientists. They just want to do their jobs.”

Staffing issues

Across 2019 and 2020, the lab saw departures in some key roles, including several senior executives and personnel in its forensic disciplines, according to a WTOP review of organization charts and staffing lists in documents the lab provides annually to the D.C. Council and a review of the meeting minutes of the lab’s Scientific Advisory Board. Former employees speaking to WTOP confirmed the high degree of turnover at DFS, especially among senior management.

“Before I left, they were hemorrhaging people,” an employee who left last year said. “You cannot keep people at DFS because it is just such a bad environment.”

DFS budget and performance plans filed with the city administrator earlier this year hint at the agency’s staffing troubles. Those documents say the turnover rate for the three years leading up to 2020 was 10.6%, although the trend was improving, the documents suggested. “This is attributed to the concerted effort of the Executive Leadership Team to listen to feedback from exit interviews, maintain a strong open door policy and to engage in sometimes difficult dialogue,” the agency wrote.

Some former employees said Smith, far from actually holding difficult dialogues, resisted different viewpoints.

“She aligned herself with people who would never question her opinions or her ideas,” one of the former employees told WTOP. “She would gravitate toward those who agreed with all of her opinions.”

Multiple former employees pointed to the agency’s newly created senior deputy director position.

Under the 2011 legislation establishing the agency, the lab is required to have a deputy director with an advanced degree in forensic science or another applicable science, and at least two years of experience in the field of forensic science.

That position has been officially vacant since the end of 2019. But last winter, the agency created a new position of “senior deputy director,” which is currently filled by a longtime DFS staffer with a background as an actuarial consultant in the financial industry.

At least three former employees and the union official said they see the creation of the position as unethical and skirting the intent of the legislation that created the independent lab, since they believe the intent of D.C. lawmakers was to have a No. 2 leader at the agency who, just like the director, has been formally trained in forensic science.

The full picture?

As the D.C. Council hearing nears, some former employees argue the lab needs stronger oversight, saying D.C. officials aren’t always getting the full picture about what’s going on at the department.

“People from the mayor on down have no idea about forensics, and they have the ultimate faith in Smith because she has a Ph.D.,” one of the former employees said. “They need an oversight committee that knows forensic science.”

Last year, when prosecutors first launched their audit of the firearms unit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the D.C. Attorney General wrote to DFS to say they were no longer relying on the work of the lab’s Firearms Examination Unit in firearms cases going to trial “to preserve the viability of our prosecutions.”

At a D.C. Council hearing last month — before it was publicly known the lab was under criminal investigation and before the lab lost accreditation — Smith told Allen, the committee chairman, the firearms complaint raised by prosecutors was a closed matter.

And when Allen asked Smith whether federal prosecutors and the attorney general’s office were once again using the lab’s Firearms Examination Unit, or FEU, Smith responded, “as far as I know, they are,” even providing figures for the number of requests that the U.S. Attorney’s Office sent to DFS for firearms processing.

However, in a March 22, 2021, letter sent to Allen and others, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine urged the inspector general to continue investigating the lab and said Smith’s responses to the committee were inaccurate: “Neither OAG nor USAO has provided notice to DFS that it has resumed using DFS firearms examiners in its cases because we have not resumed using the FEU.”

In a follow-up letter to Allen sent March 26, Smith said she didn’t have a chance to speak to Racine or the U.S. Attorney before she appeared in front of Allen’s committee and she said she only learned afterward that the attorney general’s office “continues to consider itself not to be relying on our FEU.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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