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NFSTC: Bend It Til It Breaks

I have mentioned before that constantly letting things slide to justify getting what you want is particularly dangerous in the criminal justice system.

That slippery slope is particularly short for those who constantly skate too close to the line of what is legal- sometimes crossing it with reckless abandon- in their efforts to protect and serve their egos.

Last time on ye olde blog, I filled you in on some background stuff about the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and its questionable relationship with one of the grant offices at the National Institutes of Justice (NIJ) where the NFSTC gets its funding.

I also told you about the fact that the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has called attention to the NIJ’s practice of awarding funding in ways that are far outside the bounds of “fair and open.” This has resulted in millions of dollars going to “entities of dubious merit,” as Congress calls them, instead of going to local and state law enforcement agencies and crime labs.

This has also resulted in the strong language in the FY 2012 Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations Bill that expressed the anger of Congress at the NIJ and those “entities of dubious merit” who have benefited from the NIJ’s bad practices (remember that wonderful line in the 2012 Senate CJS Appropriations Bill, “The Committee’s patience has been exhausted”?).

While there are several of these “entities of dubious merit” that deserve to be brought into the sunlight… for today we’ll stick to the NFSTC.

The NFSTC was founded in 1995 by the ASCLDs (ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB). The NFSTC is a nonprofit membership corporation, which means that the member corporations have control over the NFSTC and elect the board of directors. ASCLD is still a member corporation, but ASCLD/LAB is not, for reasons discussed below.

Other member corporations include

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME)
  • International Association for Identification (IAI)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)
  • American Board of Criminalists (ABC)
  • Association of Forensic Quality Assurance Managers (AFQAM)
  • Florida International University (FIU)
  • University of South Florida (USF)
  • University of Central Florida (UCF)
  • Southeastern Public Safety Institute of St. Petersburg College (SEPSI)

The day-to-day management of the NFSTC is controlled by the executive staff which is headed by long-time NFSTC CEO Kevin Lothridge, a past-president of ASCLD.

However, even though the NFSTC is headed by a past-president of ASCLD and ASCLD still maintains some control over the NFSTC (supposedly), the NFSTC and ASCLD are not on friendly terms at all.

This is important because the tactics used by the management of the NFSTC are very similar to those we’ve seen at ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB, even though the NFSTC and the ASCLDs are not BFFs anymore.

The Reason for the Rift

The reason that the ASCLDs and the NFSTC aren’t buddies anymore appears to be because the NFSTC pulled a very ASCLD-type move on ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB: the NFSTC betrayed the trust of the ASCLDs for its own benefit and financial gain.

In 1999, the NFSTC received a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for “development of an ISO compliant version of the ASCLD/LAB program” (from the NFSTC’s own 1999 Annual Report, under the heading “ASCLD/LAB Program Development”).

Instead of developing an ISO program for ASCLD/LAB, some within the NFSTC saw it as an opportunity to create a new money-making business unit: Forensic Quality Services (FQS), a competitor to ASCLD/LAB.

Except that FQS wasn’t so good getting clients from anyone but their board of directors, which is probably why they were just acquired by ANSI. I hope ANSI has a good due diligence process.

FQS appears to have been forced into this financial position because of the close scrutiny of the Senate. FQS used to share office space with the NFSTC, even after they incorporated as a separate corporation.

FQS had to move out of their cozy digs with the NFSTC ahead of the 2011 CJS Appropriations Bill which called for an investigation into the relationship between the NIJ, the NFSTC, and FQS.

So… remember that December 2007 Crime Lab Report where the ASCLDs argued against capitalism because the NFSTC had created FQS? The article said that if crime lab accreditation (something should be standardized) was allowed to be bid on by multiple competitors that it would, somehow, raise the price instead of lowering it.

The ASCLD’s main complaint in that article (besides arguing that the rules of fair market trade are, somehow, suspended when it comes to bidding out crime lab accreditation) was that the NFSTC and FQS were horribly dishonest because they broke their promises to the ASCLDs.

What they should have argued is that the NFSTC misappropriated government funds by not using the NIST grant to create an ISO program for ASCLD/LAB.

By the way, you can only get that ridiculous December 2007 Crime Lab Report here now, because Crime Lab Report has taken it off their website (as of this writing).

The Wonderful Nebulousness of Nothingness

The tactics that the NFSTC has used over the years to simultaneously pursue funding and shrug off any sort oversight is the same sort of shady, shifty weirdness you would expect from any ASCLD-related organization.

It involves lots of talking in circles and self-certification of being experts in the nebulous idea of forensic science.

You know the drill.

First, they self-certify and hope everybody buys it.

It’s very much like when some nonexpert declares, “I oversaw the [firearms, DNA/serology, trace evidence, whatever] unit for [X] years.” This nonexpert was never actually trained in the field they are trying to lay claim to with that sentence.

The nonexpert who makes that statement is counting on their audience assuming that they are an expert because they have, perhaps, signed time sheets for a group of actual experts. Perhaps they are wishing for some paper-skin contact transfer of knowledge.

The way the NFSTC did this in order to help their friends at the NIJ Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences “justify” sending them money year after year was by submitting the results of two “focus groups.”

But guess who the “focus groups” were that they used for their justification for giving all those millions of dollars to the NFSTC? (From the NFSTC’s own 2003 Annual Report. The “focus groups” are mentioned again in 2004.)

The first [focus group] was convened from the member organization representatives [of the NFSTC] at the time of the annual NFSTC membership meeting in April. The second consisted of the Directors of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), which met in early May.

Since ASCLD is a member organization of the NFSTC, that means that both “focus groups” were actually just the NFSTC self-certifying how wonderful they think they are so that the NIJ would send them money. Also, these are meetings of a very few people; not surveys of entire memberships of the organizations that they claim to represent.

The reports from the “focus groups” were submitted during a time when the NIJ kept funding the NFSTC by simply extending the contract on the funding they got in 2000. The initial FY 2000 award was relatively small: $414,000.

But the continuation funding that the NIJ gave to the NFSTC by re-upping the contract every year was much bigger:

  • FY 2001: $2.6 million
  • FY 2002: $8.8 million
  • FY 2003: $3.6 million
  • FY 2004: $2.0 million

That’s $17 million in continuation funding in 4 years from an original $414K award. Funding that could have gone to crime labs. And that’s just from that one funding contract.

The original award was for “Crime Laboratory Service Quality.” The next couple of years the award was for “Service Quality in Crime Laboratories.” Whatever that means.

All of this funding is coming from the NIJ Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences AKA the Mike Sheppo grant office AKA the office where Mark Nelson also works AKA the office that is supposed to fund crime labs, but, HA! good luck with that how do you like your furlough days, suckers.

But now that the NFSTC is self-certified to the hilt, they’ve got to deliver something with those millions of dollars.

This presented another problem for the NFSTC and, evidently, created some friction with the NFSTC’s day-to-day management team and the board of directors.

In the 2002 Annual Report, the NFSTC’s management team had two notable complaints for its membership corporations (the organizations that send representatives to its board of directors):

  1. The amount of funding that the NFSTC is receiving from the NIJ is a “drain on the corporation” because too much of it is just going right out the door in the form of programs the NFSTC is supposed to deliver to crime labs, and
  2. The board has recently voted to outsource “all financial processing”, taking control- and any opportunity for financial creativity- out of the hands of the NFSTC’s management team.

Specifically, the report said

Two areas are brought to the attention of members as requiring some consideration in the 2003 fiscal year. The first is the impact of the [NIJ] Cooperative Agreement funds on the corporation. These funds permit us to provide a range of much needed services to public state and local crime laboratories, some of which they would not be able to access on a fee for service basis.

However, providing these programs accounted for 80% of the NFSTC expenditures in 2002. Consequently, there are several downsides. For example, the funds are provided as a cooperative agreement award rather than a service contract. The conditions for administration of such awards are designed for grants to universities and governments and are unfavorable to corporations structured like the NFSTC. They require a substantial investment in administrative resources and are a net drain on the corporation.

Let’s stop right here a moment.

This first gripe amounts to this: the NFSTC’s day-to-day management team is complaining that the NIJ is giving them money to deliver programs to state and local crime labs and… they are expected to spend the money actually delivering programs to state and local crime labs. The NFSTC doesn’t want to let go of the cash they are getting.

The NFSTC was founded 7 years prior to this report based on the idea of taking federal funding and delivering services to crime labs. The NFSTC’s board and managers are current and former crime lab directors who know what sort of strings come with federal funds. Complaining that they are just now noticing that there are administrative requirements associated with NIJ funding is a lame excuse.

Also, keep in mind that this is the high year in terms of that list above of continuation funding. The NFSTC received over $8.8 million in 2002 from the NIJ.

Let’s go back to the gripes in the 2002 Annual Report.

The board has repeatedly asserted that the corporation must be able to balance the valuable services provided under the [NIJ] Cooperative Agreement while not just maintaining but growing the FQS and FQS-I business. Only in that way will the NFSTC continue as a strong, sound corporation.

Growing FQS and FQS-I business leads to the second issue facing us in 2003. In round figures, we ended the year three times larger than we began it. The whole face of the NFSTC is changing.

That had to chap some hides on the board of directors and among the members. This was during a time when ASCLD/LAB was still a member corporation of the NFSTC.

Successful operations based on the close integration and control exercised by a few dedicated staff and a willing board have been replaced by systems that are more impersonal. As an example, already in 2003 the Board has supported the decision to outsource all financial processing. It is our intent to continue in this direction, but we trust that we will never become so large and impersonal that we lose touch with our key stakeholders – our clients in the forensic sciences.

In this last paragraph, NFSTC management is also complaining that the board of directors has taken away management’s day-to-day control over finances by outsourcing “all financial processing.” This probably did away with any opportunities for financial creativity as well.

NFSTC management complains that outsourcing the handling of financial processing is a step toward making the NFSTC “more impersonal” and hints strongly that they could “lose touch with [their] key stakeholders- our clients in the forensic sciences.” This is another unconvincing excuse.

The NFSTC’s clients- crime labs whose accounting is often handled through separate departments far removed from the crime labs themselves- care about the quality of the forensic programs that are being delivered, not about whether their bill is being sent from the NFSTC or from a professional accounting service.

This seems to have been a point when the member organizations tried to exert some control over NFSTC management and may have had some suspicions either about what management was doing with the books or their competency to handle the task.

However, NFSTC management must have complained loud and long about losing control of their financial processing, because that move was soon reversed. The NFSTC now has a full “Financial Services” staff.

But the other complaints from the NFSTC management team about becoming too impersonal and having trouble handling the requirements of their own NIJ contracts and financial operations would become ridiculously ironic very soon.

And here comes the irony…

So, the NFSTC betrayed their founders (ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB) with a move right out of the ASCLDs’ own play book and they’re bringing in millions of dollars thanks to dizzying self-certification (another move out of the ASCLDs’ play book).

Now they have to figure out what they are going to deliver with all those millions of dollars. Time to double-down on the double-speak.

In their 2002 Annual Report, presented in 2003, the NFSTC management team actually said, in black and white, that the millions of dollars they were receiving from the NIJ was a “drain on the corporation.”

The official excuse for this in their Annual Report… issued in March 2003… was that NFSTC management was having trouble handling the administrative burden of keeping track of all that money. The NFSTC board even voted to outsource all the financial processing, taking this duty away from the NFSTC’s management team.

So, in federal FY 2004… which began in October 2003… their friendly friends at the NIJ gave the NFSTC a $1 million grant to… perform “Grant Program Assessments” on all the other grant recipients to make sure everyone else was handling the administrative burdens of their grants appropriately.

The NFSTC continued to receive funding to perform these Assessments from FY 2004 through FY 2011. It appears that well has run dry for the time being thanks, once again, to the close scrutiny of the Senate (FY 2012 Senate CJS Appropriations Bill… “The Committee’s patience has been exhausted”…. “entities of dubious merit”… yep).

In their 2004 Annual Report, the NFSTC also claimed that they delivered what they called “DNA Academy III.” The NFSTC bragged that they

developed an infrastructure partnership with the Illinois State Police (ISP) funding the direct cost of delivery. The NFSTC trained 13 recently hired DNA analysts.

You’ll recognize this as the contract that NFSTC Board President Mike Sheppo funneled to the NFSTC when he was the head of the crime lab at the Illinois State Police. The NFSTC may have bragged about the training they delivered, but the Illinois State Police was not at all pleased with the quality of the training or the fact that they were charged $750,000 for something that could have been done better in-house, thank you very much.

This was all outlined in the investigation that ended with Sheppo being recommended for disciplinary action for, among other things, misleading the Illinois Inspector General’s Office during that investigation into the whole mess.

The investigation also found that the NFSTC had inappropriately charged the Illinois State Police for something that was supposed to be free because the NIJ had already paid for it. Because the whole point of the NIJ giving the NFSTC millions of dollars is so they can deliver services to crime labs for free.

Also, in their 2002 Annual Report, the NFSTC management team lamented that they did not want control over their day-to-day financial processing outsourced because that would make them too “impersonal.”

However, the NFSTC moved fast and furious toward “technology based training” in almost everything they do. Also, the development and delivery of almost all of their products and services is outsourced.

Outsourcing the development of a product that is delivered over the internet or on a CD/DVD to someone you will never meet (and whose name you may never even know) is just about as impersonal as you can get.

But this is a great way to get and keep funding: get funding to develop this kind of training, then get more funding to “maintain” it.

As mentioned in the FY 2012 Senate CJS Appropriations Bill, the NFSTC is not the only NIJ-funded organization to be pulling this kind of stuff, they just make a really good example. The NFSTC is one of several organizations that seem to have friends on the inside at NIJ who make sure that grant money intended for crime labs, law enforcement agencies, and places where it could do some good ends up at “entities of dubious merit” instead.

One way the NIJ did this over the last few years was through its “Center of Excellence” award programs. These vaguely named programs have given huge sums of money to awardees.

From 2007 to 2010, the NFSTC received a minimum of $6 million per year from the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence award program alone. That’s in addition to the more than $2 million per year they averaged under the NamUs program and the millions more they received for other various awards.

But all this hasn’t been enough, evidently.

So the NFSTC also started pursuing a bigger funding pool: Department of Defense funding.

For the past few years, the NFSTC has also been receiving millions of dollars in earmark funding from the Department of Defense. What they’ve been doing with this funding isn’t really clear. The only thing discussed in their annual reports related to the Department of Defense is portable laboratories.

According to their most recently available tax form, only two of the portable labs were actually used by the Department of Defense at a cost of $210,000 each.

I say “most recently available tax form” because the last available tax form for the NFSTC is for 2009. They have not published their 2010 tax form on their website along with their other tax forms and I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere.

Which brings me to yet another ASCLD-type play and a reason why the NFSTC might be hiding all their income from everybody…

The Founding of the For-Profit

In August 2010, the NFSTC incorporated the Forensic Innovation Center (FIC), a for-profit consulting company (sound familiar?). The registered agent and president of the corporation is Kevin Lothridge, the CEO of the NFSTC.

One of the problems with this is that the FIC purports to do most of the things as a for-profit that the NFSTC is supposed to do as a nonprofit. Legally, you can’t have an officer of a nonprofit giving preference to a for-profit over the nonprofit.

Legally, if there is an opportunity available and there is a choice to be made about whether the nonprofit or the for-profit gets to take advantage of the opportunity, you always have to give preference to the nonprofit. Any services that the FIC purports to offer that could be offered by the NFSTC must be given to the NFSTC.

The NFSTC itself reinforced the fact that it offers the same services as the FIC by contracting with some of the FIC’s “partner companies” prior to founding the FIC. These contracts occurred in 2009, the year immediately prior to the founding of the FIC, and were for quite large sums, relative to the amounts the NFSTC usually paid their contractors.

In 2009, the NFSTC contracted with Ron Smith & Associates for just over $300,000 for consulting and training. A year later, Ron Smith & Associates would become a partner company in the FIC.

Also in 2009, the NFSTC contracted with the High Tech Crime Institute for just over $280,000 in training. High Tech Crime Institute would be come a partner company in FIC. High Tech Crime Institute is also the physical location of the FIC, just a few doors up from the NFSTC.

Other partner companies listed on the website for the FIC are predominantly defense sector-related companies.

When the FIC was founded, there was a company listed as a partner company named ICx Technologies. ICx Technologies was in the process of being bought by another company called FLIR Systems.

The acquisition of ICx Technologies by FLIR was officially completed on October 5, 2010. ICx Technologies ceased to exist as a corporation at that time and became part of FLIR.

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Beth Lavach, the lobbyist for the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations (CFSO… the lobbying group of ASCLD, ASCLD/LAB, AAFS, NAME, IAI, and a few others), was the lobbyist of ICx Technologies.

And, according to the lobbying disclosure forms she’s been filing, she still is.

Beth Lavach has been filing lobbying disclosure forms under the banner of ICx Technologies every quarter for over a year as if the company still exists. No amended registrations. No name changes for the corporation.

According to the lobbying disclosures, ICx Technologies is one of Lavach’s highest paying clients.

And that, according to the Clerk of the House of Representative’s office, is not cool.

Next time (Tuesday, promise)… Who is paying Beth Lavach?