Feds want prison time in unprecedented lie detector prosecution

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Prosecutors are asking a federal judge to send a “strong message” by sentencing an Indiana Little League coach to prison for trying to teach as many as 100 people across the country how to beat lie detector tests.

In a test case aimed at deterring other such polygraph instructors, prosecutors have urged the judge to sentence Chad Dixon to one year and nine months in prison, citing a “career of criminal deceit” that included teaching the techniques to child molesters, intelligence employees and law enforcement applicants.

Authorities assert Dixon crossed the line between free speech protected under the First Amendment and criminal conduct when he told some of his clients to conceal what he taught them while undergoing government polygraphs.

“Properly understood, his crimes encompass inviting total strangers into a scheme to defraud and obstruct, and joining in their criminal enterprises,” prosecutors wrote. “Dixon adopted a mercenary-like attitude towards the nation’s border security and the security of the nation’s secrets. He also acted with callous disregard for the most vulnerable in society – our children. . . . Dixon’s misconduct was purposeful, dangerous and it requires punishment.”

The prosecutors’ push for prison emerged in court filings as a federal judge prepares to sentence Dixon next month. Dixon, 34, pleaded guilty late last year to charges of obstruction and wire fraud after federal agents targeted him in an undercover sting that was first reported by McClatchy.

The decision to prosecute Dixon and the attempt to imprison him has been cited as an example of the Obama administration’s overzealousness in detecting and deterring potential “insider threats,” a catchall phrase meant to describe employees who might become spies, leak to the news media, commit crimes or become corrupted in some way.

The case also has sparked a larger debate over whether the federal government should be pursuing such instructors given questions about the reliability of lie detectors, which are not accepted by most courts as evidence against criminal defendants.

Polygraphers interpret measurements of blood pressure, sweat activity, respiration and movement to identify people who lie or try to beat the test. If polygraphers notice unusual responses that they believe indicate lies or manipulation of the test, they attempt to elicit a confession to confirm their suspicions.

The instructors, meanwhile, claim to teach methods that help the test-takers avoid such scrutiny. The techniques, known as countermeasures, include controlled breathing, muscle tensing, tongue biting and mental arithmetic.

“It does not require much looking to find a respected scientist who has convincingly argued that polygraphs do not operate above chance levels and are therefore detrimental to national security,” Dixon’s defense attorney, Nina Ginsberg, wrote in her response to prosecutors. “. . . Mr. Dixon has done nothing that warrants the government’s attempts to make him the poster child for its newly undertaken campaign to wipe out polygraph countermeasures training.”

Signaling the prosecution’s aggressive posture in Dixon’s case, a Justice Department lawyer from the elite division that pursues public corruption is involved. Dixon, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria, Va., a forum often chosen by prosecutors for terrorism and spy cases.

Ginsberg, who has asked the judge to sentence Dixon to probation, accused the prosecutors of a “shameless attempt” to convince a judge to send her client to prison based on “hyperbole.” While she acknowledged that her client earned about $1,000 a session for teaching as many as 70 people over a year and a half, she said he was mostly teaching people how to pass polygraph tests demanded by spouses who suspected infidelity.

“Far from embarking on a ‘career of criminal deceit,’ Mr. Dixon was a struggling owner of a small family-owned electrical contracting company, with a third child on the way, who saw a way to stave off foreclosure and protect his family from ballooning financial debt,” Ginsberg wrote. “The government’s exaggerated attempts to lay the fate of society’s most vulnerable and the protection of our national borders at Mr. Dixon’s feet should be seen for what it is.”

Prosecutors and federal agents have refused to respond to questions about the case.

However, an official from U.S. Customs and Border Protection acknowledged in a speech attended by a McClatchy reporter that mere discussion of such techniques is protected under the First Amendment. Customs is leading the crackdown, although other federal and local law enforcement agencies have been involved in the case.

Federal authorities have targeted at least one other instructor in the investigation. McClatchy reported that federal agents launched an undercover sting aimed at Doug Williams, whose book is said to have inspired Dixon. Williams, a former Oklahoma City police polygrapher, turned over his business records, but federal authorities refuse to say whether they have gathered evidence of any crime.

Williams, who has openly taught the techniques for thirty years, has said he has done nothing wrong.

Prosecutors, however, describe Dixon’s actions as helping job applicants to conceal or lie about information sought by government polygraphers, which constitutes what is known as an “obstruction of an agency proceeding” charge, court filings show. They sought a wire fraud charge against Dixon for a “scheme” that helped applicants get jobs by making “false and fraudulent statements.” Dixon could have faced up to five years in prison for the obstruction charge and up to 20 years for the wire fraud charge.

According to prosecutors, Dixon taught seven federal law enforcement applicants and two government contractors, including one who had a security clearance with an unnamed intelligence agency.

However, the most incriminating evidence appears to have come from Dixon’s interactions with two undercover agents. Dixon, for instance, advised one undercover agent posing as the brother of a violent Mexican drug trafficker to withhold details during a polygraph for a Customs and Border Protection job, prosecutors said.

“I would probably reference him as a distant relative,” Dixon told the undercover agent. “If they ask questions about him, if it does come up, just say, ‘Look, I don’t really know what he’s into.’”

Prosecutors also listed nine unnamed sex offenders Dixon trained across the country as actions the judge “must consider.”

“In approximately 18 months from Illinois to Texas, North Carolina to California . . . Dixon’s conduct has threatened the safety and security of 69 to 100 communities with total disregard for the consequences,” prosecutors wrote.

However, prosecutors didn’t offer evidence that Dixon encouraged any of the sex offenders he trained to hide new or undisclosed crimes.

Ginsberg said only one sex offender told Dixon about an undisclosed crime during court-ordered polygraph monitoring. In that instance, Dixon alerted probation officials about the 39-year-old from Carrollton, Texas, who confessed to sexual molesting a minor while on probation.

Ginsberg acknowledged her client was “less cautious” with job applicants. As a result, she said, he had convinced himself that the undercover agent posing as a drug cartel member “had no chance” of getting through federal screening.

“Because of his utter disdain for the use of polygraph testing, he failed to appreciate the degree to which federal agencies might rely on polygraph test results,” Ginsberg wrote.

Email: mtaylor@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @marisaataylor

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