Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has failed a second time to regain full accreditation for a state lab that investigates thousands of cases of fire debris every year for evidence of arson.
The latest blow to the lab’s credibility is a report last week by a three-member appeals board that upheld nine of 11 critical findings in its fire debris section, forcing the lab to remove all references to national accreditation from its web site until the problems are resolved.
The loss of accreditation means a loss of prestige for the lab and could jeopardize arson investigations across Florida.
The lab, known as the Bureau of Forensic Services, is the third-largest operation of its kind in the country.
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A national accreditation board, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, or ASCLD, launched an investigation of the lab last year after saying it had “several complaints” — actually two, according to Atwater’s office.
One was from John Lentini of Islamorada, a private investigator who has repeatedly questioned the lab’s work.
Lentini cited a case in which his client, a Crawfordville man, was wrongly accused of arson and insurance fraud in a boat fire based on lab findings. Stanley Freeman received $247,000 in public money from Atwater’s office to settle a civil rights lawsuit.
Lentini said the lab has repeatedly found the presence of gasoline where none existed and ASCLD agreed, finding that in 26 gasoline-related cases it reviewed at random, 14 involved “an unsupported conclusion” by lab analysts.
The problems became more serious in March when the North Carolina-based accrediting agency sent a review team to the lab in Havana, near Tallahassee, where it found a series of deficiencies and suspended the lab’s accreditation in the fire debris category.
”The report is full of allegations that make it seem that this is a laboratory full of incompetents,” lab chief Carl Chasteen responded in May.
Nearly all of the deficiencies were upheld on appeal, and the suspension of accreditation will stay in effect until the lab “has resolved all of the remaining findings,” a report said.
Atwater, whose duties include serving as state fire marshal, has questioned the accrediting agency’s motives. His office has criticized ASCLD for releasing preliminary conclusions.
The appeal panel found “insufficient supporting documentation” and said specific details “are not well documented.”
“It is the appeal panel belief that there are opportunities for improvement in the procedures at BFS,” said the report, which reiterated the review team’s earlier finding of “questionable conclusions” in a number of cases.
Atwater’s office filed a 26-page corrective action plan with ASCLD in which it says it will review procedures, implement additional checks and balances and hold a class for its lab analysts.
“While we are disappointed with your decision to uphold most of the findings of March 7, we have nonetheless been working diligently to resolve all outstanding matters of alleged non-compliance,” Deputy Chief Financial Officer Jay Etheridge wrote on Sept. 16. “We are eager to have this matter resolved as soon as possible.”
Etheridge’s letter indicated that the CFO’s office wants to arrange a follow-up site visit by the appeal board within the next three weeks.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.