somebody doing something

The Awesome Anger of Congress

There have been the usual efforts by the usual suspects (the ASCLDs, the NFSTC, et al.) to claim that they are just as much in charge as usual, that they are firmly in control of everything, and, if anything, that they are gaining ground in their efforts to set the tone of what forensic science reform and the forensic science system will look like when all is said and done.

I have also been hearing that retaliation has been stepped up among some of the more overly-sensitive lab directors and other managers in their efforts to drive the point home that nothing is going to change.

Congress begs to differ.

“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Margaret Thatcher

I’m a little bit in awe of the Senate CJS Appropriations Committee right now.

The Senate CJS Appropriations Committee decides where the money will go for the Commerce, Justice, and Science-related agencies, which includes:

  • The entire Department of Justice (NIJ, FBI, DEA, ATF, Bureau of Prisons, etc.)
  • The Department of Commerce which includes organizations with scientific components such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Other Science-related Agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NASA
  • Other Justice-related Agencies such as the State Justice Institute and Legal Services Corporation.

In other words… much of the money that eventually ends up at local police agencies and crime labs comes from the CJS Appropriations Committee in the form of the CJS Appropriations Bill.

Some people will argue that funding for police agencies and crime labs comes from states to local government, which is true to an extent. Some of these same people will also try to tell you that federal forensic reform legislation can’t be implemented because of “states rights.” They are wrong. Very, very wrong.

Most of the time, federal funds get passed through from the state level to the local level. So, a great deal of the funding that ends up at a local police agency or crime lab comes from the federal government, period. That means that any money that comes from the federal level can come with whatever conditions the feds decide to put on it.

What that means is that, if your agency receives any federal funding- whether it is directly from the federal government or from the feds through the state or in the form of training or equipment or whatever- the federal government is going to be able to have a whole lot of say in mandating accreditation of laboratories, certification of forensic scientists, and whatever else they decide to implement (e.g., Senator Patrick Leahy’s forensic science reform bill that has the ASCLDs running scared, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act, S. 132).

One example of how the federal government can very effectively implement changes via funding is when the feds decided it would be a good idea to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984. That, too, brought up a lot of “states rights” arguments.

So, the federal government told the states that their federal highway funds would be cut until they raised their legal drinking age to 21. Federal highway funds are one of the largest sources of income for states. And… voilá. The nation-wide drinking age very quickly became 21.

States can have all the rights they want, but if they want money from the federal government, it comes with conditions. Or, as one person put it… “that’s a pretty big hammer.”

But let’s get back to what the funding from the CJS Committee is supposed to do.

The intent of the CJS Committee is to see that as many deserving public agencies as possible get funded and to provide as much support as they can throughout the country with the funding that is available. This is so agencies don’t get spread too thin, resulting in enormous backlogs and reduction in critical resources, such as too few officers on the streets and too few scientists in the crime labs… which is the situation we have right now throughout the country.

The intent of the Committee is not to allow a few bureaucrats to pass out almost all the funding to a few of their friends or to hoard away government cash and then funnel it into a place where they can create cushy retirement jobs for themselves.

As I mentioned last time, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (where all the grant money for crime labs comes from… AKA Mike Sheppo’s office) has, for a long time, apparently just been shuttling money around to their friends and favorite corporations. This has been primarily the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and a few others, as I discussed last time.

Some members of Congress have been trying to put a stop to this for a while, through some pointed language, audits, and other look-sees carried out by the Inspector General’s office. Sheppo’s office has been coming up with new and not-so-creative ways of sending money directly to their own friends. One of these is the Forensic Science Technology Center of Excellence [FSTCE] grant that should just be called the NFSTC grant, because that’s where the money goes.

It might be sort of forgivable if the NFSTC had lived up to its mission or claims to “do good things” or promote excellence in forensic science. Instead, according to observers on Capitol Hill, the focus has been on self-promotion and enrichment of those involved with the NFSTC- the purported “leaders” of forensic science.

I have also heard from others who have been sent to training at the NFSTC or who work in labs who have been subject to one of the various audits provided by the NFSTC that these services provided by the NFSTC are not what they should be or what they claim to be.

This was also reflected in the Illinois Inspector General’s investigation into Mike Sheppo’s funneling of a sole-source contract for training to the NFSTC. The Acting Training Coordinator of the DNA section and the Director of Training for the Illinois State Police found that the training the analysts received fell far short of what was expected. This could explain why the quotes the NFSTC puts up on its website proclaiming how great its training and services are come mainly from people who are higher-ups in its member organizations and employees of the public agencies where those people work.

“The Committee’s Patience Has Been Exhausted.”

But the Committee shall have no more.

You don’t have to be a dork like me to appreciate how angry the Senate CJS Appropriations Committee is with our Dear Leaders in the forensic science world.

There is no reading between the lines. There is no subtlety to the language or leaving any room for Michael Sheppo and Mark Nelson at the NIJ to decide where to send the money that is usually destined for the lab directors to squander or the NFSTC, which usually gorges itself on government funds meant for DNA projects that disappears into other areas of their balance sheet.

For those of you whose grant applications have not been funded and you have wondered what was wrong with your application…

For those of you who have felt that your proposals were solid and wondered what the hell else it is that NIJ could possibly be looking for…

It’s not you. It’s them. Congress is aware of that. You should be, too.

There have been numerous previous findings (1, 2) by the Inspector General and the Committee that the NIJ does not hand out funds equitably or in a way that is justifiable. Also, there tend to be conflicts of interest and tight relationships running rampant among the folks who decide where the money goes and where the money ends up going. These things have been uncovered, but, evidently, no Attorney General, past or present, or anyone else in the Department of Justice has done anything about it.

The NIJ is not supposed to be handing out funding in the way that it is. But, I am told, it continues to operate without oversight from within the DOJ and without consequences for its actions. And the rest of the country is left to suffer.

And the Committee makes quite clear how disgusted it is with the state of things right there in the CJS Appropriations Bill (Page 77):

Examination of DNA and Forensic Analysis Grants Uses.—The Committee remains concerned about NIJ’s use of DNA and forensic analysis funding. The primary intent of this funding is to reduce DNA backlogs and enhance the capacity of State and local crime labs to handle and process forensic evidence and ensure that future backlogs do not occur. Despite full DNA analysis funding in the last 3 years, a significant backlog of DNA samples and rape kits remains in public crime laboratories. This backlog imperils prosecutions or exonerations associated with sexual assaults, homicides and other heinous crimes.

Too often, to the Committee’s dismay, NIJ appears to fritter away forensic and DNA analysis funding by broadly dispersing grants to agencies and entities of dubious merit. The Committee has uncovered expenditures of forensic DNA funding for: (1) polling firms; (2) colleges and universities; (3) cell phone technology components; (4) entities of uncertain mission that employ heads of influential forensics policy advisory groups; and (5) other outlays that do not appear to contribute to DNA backlog reduction. NIJ persists, however, in tailoring narrow grant solicitations and directing the majority of funds toward questionable projects, such as the Forensic Science Technology Center of Excellence [FSTCE], which has received more than $22,000,000 for the last 3 years, and other projects that do not contribute directly to accelerating DNA evidence processing for use in felony cases.

The Committee’s patience has been exhausted. Based on the combination of past waste and the current bleak budget environment, the Committee directs the Department to ensure that all DNA Initiative and Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement funding be available only to State and local forensic labs for the sole purpose of actively reducing the backlog of DNA evidence. The Committee directs the Department to submit quarterly progress reports on DNA funding distribution beginning 60 days after date of enactment of the accompanying act. Further, if the Department sees the need for FSTCE, it should incorporate these functions into its budget request.

In addition, the Committee directs the DOJ Inspector General to conduct an examination of all of the past 3 years of DNA funding awards to nongovernment entities that are not affiliated with a public DNA laboratory. Criteria should include the methodology and merits in creating the solicitations of these funds; if the results of the awards have a direct and measurable impact on reducing the DNA backlog; and how the obligations of the solicitations have been fulfilled.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a big ol’ slap in face to the NFSTC, ASCLD, the CFSO, and a few other associated organizations who have been benefiting from having their friends run amok in the NIJ.

AND… for those of you working in crime labs… you know how you look around at some of the stuff going on in some of the labs out there and you wonder why no one is paying attention to the blatantly wasteful, redundant, or otherwise irresponsible things going on? Well, obviously Congress is wondering the same thing, too.

Along with this very public rebuke and taking away the FSTCE funding from NFSTC, funding for the Coverdell grant program was cut in half while DNA funding was left relatively untouched. Coverdell has always been seen as a benefit to lab directors, so that’s another slap to them.

Why ASCLD, you say? Ever wonder why a lab director would choose to spend all the money from an earmark on sending DNA cases to a friendly (and flush with ca$h) outside vendor instead of keeping the analysts who could perform the analyses in-house from being furloughed or laid off?

Then there are some lab directors who know that allowing backlogs to build up will give them a reason to ask for more money and more people… which gives them more to manage and, therefore, the appearance of greater power.

But backlogs are all about how things are counted, which can vary depending on whether it is advantageous to have a big backlog or not. So… if you need a backlog to justify requesting an earmark or an appropriation, suddenly the number of items in a case may be counted differently than if a lab director needs to be credited with making a backlog disappear.

Also, the NIJ budget request (the money the NIJ requested for themselves) eliminated resources to assist with “critical forensics and DNA research and evaluation.” Not-so-very forward-thinking of them in this time of forensic reform talks. The CJS Committee responded by transferring $5 million from NIJ’s budget to NIST (out of the control of NIJ) so that NIST can keep developing standards and standard references for research.

This budget transfer out of DOJ/NIJ to NIST is significant because a lot of discussion about forensic science reform centers around the question of whether to put any new “forensic science office” in DOJ or in NIST. Remember, the NAS Report recommended very strongly against putting any new national forensic science agency in DOJ because DOJ has given such poor attention to its own forensic science endeavors. The poor decision-making at NIJ and the lack of oversight in general at DOJ seem to be driving that point home.

When the CJS Appropriations Bill came out of the Senate, Sheppo’s office at NIJ seemed to get the hint, but reacted in a typically non-subtle Sheppo-office way. Instead of awarding the FSTCE grant to the NFSTC, they sent all the money (~$6 million) to Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in Research Triangle Park, NC (home of ASCLD/LAB and the North Carolina SBI scandal… ring a bell?). They could have chosen make multiple awards to multiple deserving programs, but they didn’t.

RTI is a well-established scientific organization, but, with $759 million in contracts and grants in 2010 for their entire portfolio, the organization is hardly hurting for funds. The FSTCE grant program funds could have gone to support actual forensic science casework, which is the point the CJS Committee is trying to make. Also, considering the fact that NIJ has instructed grant recipients in the past to use favored corporations to carry out certain parts of grant award contracts, it will interesting to see what RTI’s contract looks like for this award.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) Program grant ($2.6 million), another award that always goes to NFSTC, went to University of North Texas Health Sciences Center. North Texas is home to Dr. Bruce Budowle, Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, and Dr. Jianye Ge who all just spoke out strongly against the FBI’s plan to add more core loci to the CODIS DNA Database.

Eisenberg is also an immediate past Board Member of Forensic Quality Services (FQS), the accreditation body which was founded by NFSTC and on whose Board Michael Sheppo formerly served as President. University of North Texas Health Sciences Center is one of the “colleges and universities” referred to by the Committee in the passage above that has been receiving DNA Backlog Reduction grant money that was intended for state and local crime labs.

The stance by Eisenberg, Budowle, and Ge against adding more core loci to CODIS has brought some attention to them in the press for speaking out against the FBI’s new plans. As Budowle put it when quoted in one BBC article on the subject, “The analysts [in my lab] come to me all the time with difficult cases. They say of the large-fragment ones: ‘Get rid of them because they don’t give results’.”

The “core loci” in CODIS are basically the number of locations on a persons DNA that are compared to evidence samples to determine if there is a match. It isn’t unexpected for a person to have a match on a few locations to other people, which is why multiple locations are used. The more “core loci” that are used, the less chance there is for a bad identification.

Adding more core loci to CODIS will decrease the likelihood of bad arrests and convictions based on incomplete DNA evidence. The BBC article about FBI’s decision to add more core loci to CODIS cited the case of a British man who spent 6 months in jail for a burglary based on a 6 loci DNA match to a sample collected at the scene before his defense counsel was able to get a retest of the DNA using 10 loci. The new test showed that the man’s DNA was not a match to the crime scene sample using the broader 10 loci test.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered the use of DNA for forensic science, has advocated the use of a greater number of loci in forensic DNA profiling.

So, the current status is…

…Congress is actively expressing their despair and utter disgust with the NIJ, the NIJ’s practices of waste and abuse, and their history of “dispersing grants to agencies and entities of dubious merit.”

…Congress is actively seeking to end the NIJ’s pattern of waste, abuse, and frittering away of funds meant to serve real forensic science and public agency crime lab purposes.

…The Dear Leaders of forensic science- those who have represented forensic science so damn poorly for all these years and have been both responsible for and the beneficiaries of all this waste, abuse, and frittering away of funds- are actually indignant about all this. They can’t believe that Congress is taking away the money that they think is rightfully theirs to do with as they wish. And they have been raising hell since all this came down from the Committee.

Seriously.

They don’t want money to go to doing away with backlogs and supporting crime labs in ways that will keep criminalists from being furloughed or laid off, the way the CJS Committee has instructed. They want the money to keep supporting their own self-promotion and self-enriching causes that funnel money away from actual casework and leave actual forensic scientists in the lurch.

It is quite a statement about their true intentions when those who are representing themselves as the stewards of forensic science are clamoring against providing for forensic science in ways that will see casework completed, keep forensic scientists in their jobs, and maintain the public safety infrastructure in communities at the local level.