DC lawmaker calls for new leader at embattled District crime lab

A D.C. lawmaker is calling for new leadership at the District’s embattled Department of Forensic Sciences, which had its accreditation to perform forensic testing withdrawn and remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.

In an exclusive interview with WTOP Tuesday morning, Ward 6 D.C. Council member Charles Allen said he no longer has confidence in Dr. Jenifer Smith, a longtime FBI DNA expert, who was appointed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to lead the independent agency in 2015.

“I think it’s clear we need new leadership,” Allen said. “So whether that comes in the form of Dr. Smith resigning to make way for new leadership, or whether that’s through any other action, I think what’s clear is Dr. Smith is unable to lead the agency at this point. What we need is to be able to restore the faith in DFS and restore the ability to have an independent and accredited agency. That just does not happen with Dr. Smith, and we’re going to have to have new leadership to be able to chart the path forward.”

Allen chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which held a six-hour oversight hearing on the operations of the crime lab late last month. Though she was invited, Smith did not appear to answer Allen’s questions, apparently at the request of the mayor’s office.

At the hearing, defense attorneys and prosecutors alike expressed grave concerns about the lab’s casework and leadership. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said his office was already beginning preliminary work to identify past convictions in which DFS examiners conducted scientific analyses.

Citing that testimony, Allen said, “The only path forward is going to be with new leadership at the helm of DFS to right the ship to address all the shortcomings and problems that we’re seeing … The impact across our criminal justice system can be steep and staggering if this is not resolved quickly.”

WTOP has requested comment from DFS as well as the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice.

Allen joins a small but growing chorus of voices pressing for new leadership of the lab. Last week, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who wrote the law establishing DFS, said he no longer had confidence in lab leadership following the loss of its accreditation. During last month’s oversight hearing, an official with the union that represents DFS workers called on Bowser to remove Smith as DFS director.

IG: Reviewing ‘entirety of DFS operations’

The lab’s troubles were thrust into the spotlight after the ANSI National Accreditation Board, known as ANAB, suspended the lab’s accreditation April 2.

The accrediting board said it had “credible evidence” the lab “deliberately concealed” information from the accrediting board and “engaged in misrepresentations and fraudulent behavior,” pointing to the findings of an audit report by a team of outside experts hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General.

That report alleged that after the lab was alerted to an error in a 2015 firearms case, senior managers sought to conceal conflicting findings and pressured examiners to change their findings.

The allegations are also being investigated by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General, which has opened a criminal probe into the matter.

The inspector general has never commented on its investigation of the lab.

But in a May 5 letter to Allen’s committee, made public as part of the official record from last month’s hearing, D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas said, “My office continues to review the matters concerning the entirety of DFS’ operations” that were discussed during the April 29 oversight hearing chaired by Allen.

The inspector general said while his office could not comment on “ongoing criminal investigative matters,” he is required to “expeditiously” report matters to the U.S. Justice Department “whenever [we have] reasonable grounds to believe there has been a violation of Federal or District criminal law.” The letter didn’t say whether such a report had been made.

“In past circumstances, where the OIG has sought to both investigate allegations of criminal misconduct as well as assess the effectiveness of District agency operations and make appropriate recommendations to improve effectiveness, economy, and efficiency, the OIG has prioritized its investigative work,” Lucas’ letter stated, referencing a past public corruption case investigated by his office that resulted in the criminal prosecution of a D.C. government employee.

“Having the inspector general send a letter to the committee outlining their work and saying that it’s pending and really emphasizing how critical it is and what referrals could come from it — I think we should all take that seriously,” Allen said.

He added, “It’s highly irregular for the inspector general to even send a letter like that … And my interpretation is that they really wanted to make sure that we knew that their work was ongoing and to make sure that nobody papered over the seriousness of what is being investigated and what potentially could come from it.”

‘The law is pretty clear’

Since the lab’s accreditation was pulled, analysts at the crime lab have essentially been sidelined at a time when homicides in the District have spiked 30% higher than 2020 levels at this date. The withdrawn accreditation covers a wide range of forensic disciplines, including the handling of DNA, fingerprints, firearms and digital evidence.

Under the 2011 law establishing DFS as an independent agency, the lab is required to be accredited “by an appropriate, bona fide national accrediting organization.”

The lab is sending evidence to a private DNA lab and relying on the work of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to handle the lab’s casework.

Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart told Allen at his confirmation hearing on Monday that getting the lab re-accredited is one of his top three priorities if he is confirmed to his post. However, at the April 29 oversight roundtable, Geldart also suggested the loss of accreditation didn’t mean the lab actually had to stop conducting work.

“I think the law is pretty clear that we have to have accreditation and that’s what we’ve got to regain,” Allen told WTOP. “I think that having an independent, science-based DFS is critically important. It’s what the council intended; it’s what the District of Columbia needs … It is no small thing to not only have your accreditation suspended but then withdrawn. And as a leader of the department, one of your most basic functions is to maintain the accreditation.”

Speaking at an April 30 meeting of the lab’s science advisers, Smith, the lab’s director, said the agency had prepared a “robust” appeal to ANAB’s decision to withdraw accreditation and that it was being reviewed by the deputy mayor’s office ahead of a May 2 deadline.

During that meeting, Smith said it was important to “make sure that all the citizens can trust us and trust the lab,” and she also said she was confident the lab would once again regain accreditation.

“We’re going to open up again. That’s not going to be an issue. We will get accredited again,” Smith said, adding that she would need the science advisers’ help with branding and marketing of the lab.

WTOP requested a copy of the appeal the lab submitted from the deputy mayor’s office multiple times. A spokeswoman said she could not provide a copy of the appeal, but she said it could be obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, because some material needed to be redacted.

WTOP has filed a FOIA request for the agency’s appeal.

Allen said he, too, has requested a copy of the appeal, but that he has not yet received it.

“I think we need to see it,” Allen said of the appeal, “and the issues around transparency, the issues around trust, the issues around confidence can’t be overstated.”

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.

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