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FBI Settles With Ex-Crime Lab Supervisor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Government whistle-blower Frederic Whitehurst and the FBI reached a $1-million-plus settlement Thursday of his lawsuit charging mistreatment after he alleged publicly that the FBI crime laboratory had done shoddy work.

Under the terms of the settlement, Whitehurst, once a crime lab supervisor who has been on leave from his post, will be given copies of FBI reports and will set up an independent review panel to study potential misconduct in thousands of investigations handled by the lab.

Whitehurst, 50, hopes to alert criminal defense attorneys around the country about possible scientific errors and other shortcomings in cases studied by the lab.

“We’re elated,” said his lawyer, Stephen Kohn. “It’s vindication. It was 10 years in the making, and it closes a painful chapter.”

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Kohn said that under the agreement, Whitehurst is precluded from immediately commenting about the settlement. He returned to work Thursday at the crime lab and was given back his Smith & Wesson handgun and his gold-plated FBI badge. He will voluntarily resign from the bureau at the end of today.

The FBI, in a statement released late Thursday afternoon, noted that Whitehurst “played a role in identifying specific areas to be examined, and some of the issues he noted resulted in both internal and external reviews.”

An investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general, sparked in part by Whitehurst’s charges, found significant problems with the laboratory last year. The bureau subsequently decided to relocate the facility and to bring in outside peer reviewers for the first time in its history.

Still, the bureau’s statement strongly defended the lab. “The FBI remains committed to continuing its work and pursuing excellence in forensic science,” the statement said. “A commitment to quality has always been a central part of their [the lab’s] values and mission.”

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Whitehurst will become executive director of a new Forensic Justice Project in Washington, which he is establishing. It will be funded in part by money from his settlement. Kohn said the project will study the files of “tens of thousands” of past FBI lab examinations.

“We’re reviewing those now to see who the victims were,” Kohn said. “The minute he’s no longer working for the bureau, he will begin contacting defense attorneys in cases where we have discovered misconduct.”

Asked how fruitful that process might be, Kohn said: “There is one very significant death penalty case in which an execution is close. There are also a number of old cases from the ‘80s, and we don’t know the status of them--if people are in jail or what happened.”

The settlement provides for the federal government to pay Whitehurst $1.165 million. The money will be used to purchase a series of annuities that, over time, is expected to grow for Whitehurst and his family into an estimated $1.8 million.

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“That’s the real meat and potatoes,” Kohn said.

Whitehurst also will be allowed to continue his lawsuit against the Justice Department on similar allegations that federal prosecutors, like the FBI, maligned his credibility once he began publicly raising allegations about the crime laboratory.

He has been on administrative leave with pay since January 1997. He has also been the subject of a Justice Department disciplinary review for allegedly violating government guidelines by leaking confidential documents and publicly discussing current criminal cases.

But in a memo Wednesday from Stephen R. Colgate, an assistant attorney general, to Thomas A. Kelley, an FBI deputy general counsel, the Justice Department indicated that the disciplinary review most likely will be dropped.

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“This will confirm,” Colgate wrote Kelley, that “if Whitehurst should resign from the FBI, there would be no basis upon which to discipline him, and I would direct my staff to terminate their work with respect to Whitehurst.”

Whitehurst, who began working at the FBI a decade ago, raised allegations of crime lab problems in dozens of cases, most notably the investigation of the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people died. His charges also led to congressional reviews and a spirited defense of Whitehurst by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who hailed him as a “national hero.”

“In my view,” Grassley said Thursday, “the president of the United States should have a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden honoring Whitehurst for his tremendous courage and public service.”


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