January 27, 1997
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI has suspended a scientist-agent whose charges led to a still-secret Justice Department report critical of the FBI crime laboratory. Three other lab workers were removed from their positions because of the report.
A Republican senator said Monday the suspension of whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst "appears to be a reprisal.'' An FBI statement released Monday night denied the actions were taken "in retaliation for the actions of any employee.''
The FBI statement did not identify any of the employees by name and said only that, based on the inspector general's findings, four lab employees "who had major responsibilities in explosives investigations have been removed from their positions.'' They continue to receive pay and benefits while the bureau decided whether or not they engaged in misconduct.
The three employees, other than Whitehurst, were transferred out of the FBI lab but not suspended, according to several officials, who requested anonymity.
The FBI said it "does not believe any of the problems cited by the inspector general will preclude anyone from receiving a fair trial'' and disputes those who say the problems "have compromised any past, present or future prosecutions.''
Whitehurst, once an FBI crime lab supervisor, was placed on administrative leave with pay Friday afternoon and barred from entering any FBI building, even as a guest, according to a letter from acting lab Director Donald W. Thompson Jr. The FBI took Whitehurst's badge and gun, said his lawyer, Stephen Kohn.
The action came just days after FBI Director Louis J. Freeh received a report from the Justice Department's inspector general that officials said criticizes the work of some FBI lab employees and a report from a special investigative counsel who looked into an alleged press leak by Whitehurst.
Thompson's letter said only that Whitehurst was suspended "pending our review of information in the possession of the Department of Justice'' and added that the move "does not indicate that you have engaged in any inappropriate conduct.''
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight, wrote Freeh on Monday to demand that FBI officials appear Tuesday in his office to justify the action against Whitehurst.
"Recently, a Department of Justice official knowledgeable about the IG's investigation told me privately that Dr. Whitehurst had done a service for his country in bringing forth his information,'' Grassley wrote.
"The action taken by the FBI implies that he is being punished for `committing truth.' It appears to be a reprisal for his disclosures,'' Grassley wrote.
Kohn said that after Whitehurst's allegation about lab misconduct became known "he became a lighting rod for other employees to funnel information to the inspector general.'' Kohn said FBI officials became "very, very angry'' when they received the inspector general's report and learned that "Whitehurst funneled information directly from other FBI employees to the inspector general and the investigation mushroomed beyond what they had expected.''
Kohn said that was why Whitehurst, once rated by the FBI as its top expert on bomb residues, was barred from entering FBI buildings and from getting information from other employees.
The still-secret inspector general's report is being reviewed by FBI officials to determine whether any lab employees will be disciplined.
The inspector general hired a panel of outside scientists to evaluate the work of the lab after Whitehurst alleged in late 1995 that a pro-prosecution bias and mishandling of evidence may have tainted crime lab work or testimony on several high-profile federal cases. These include the World Trade Center bombing, the mail-bomb killing of a federal judge and a civil rights lawyer, and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
Prosecutors have decided not to use at least one lab employee as a witness in the Oklahoma City bombing case and in a bank robbery case in Ohio, sources said Monday, apparently to prevent defense attorneys from using the inspector general report to undermine any testimony by the employee.
Stephen Jones, counsel for Timothy McVeigh, who is charged in the Oklahoma City case, has deposed Whitehurst and indicated he may be called as a defense witness.
Nearly a year ago, Whitehurst was called to an interview by Special Investigative Counsel Joseph C. Hutchison, who was brought here from the Connecticut U.S. attorney's office to conduct the leak investigation.
Hutchison wrote Whitehurst's lawyers that "there is substantial reason to believe that your client ... is responsible for the unauthorized release of work-related information to Jeff Stein,'' a freelance writer who produced an article intended for publication in Playboy magazine.
At that time, Carl Stern, then Justice Department spokesman, said Playboy wrote the department to check the article's facts, which allowed officials to learn that the article would contain information and allegations about FBI employees that are protected from public release by the Privacy Act.
Stern said, "There is no criminal investigation looking into the conduct of Frederic Whitehurst. There's an administrative inquiry in connection with the leak of Whitehurst's communications with the department to a writer from Playboy magazine.''
Posted here January 30, 1997
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