May 05 2009
By: Ben Protess
Nearly a decade ago, the Justice Department launched a $600 million effort to eliminate the backlog of untested DNA evidence sitting in crime labs and police departments nationwide.
But at the same time, the Justice Department, along with Congress and state legislatures, began a push to have law enforcement collect more DNA, including from people arrested for nonviolent crimes.
The result: The DNA backlog is growing, not shrinking, and crime lab directors say they’re so overwhelmed with samples that it’s hard for them to find the murderers, rapists and other criminals whose DNA may be waiting on their shelves.
Yet as crime lab directors, civil libertarians and even some law enforcement officials advocate for narrower collection policies, they have encountered a powerful obstacle: a lobbying firm with close ties to both the Justice Department and to private companies that profit directly from increased DNA testing.
The firm, Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs, lobbies the Justice Department and lawmakers on behalf of the world’s leading producer of DNA testing equipment.
The firm subsequently worked on four additional DNA-related projects for the federal government, all commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department. Most were done without an open bidding process that would have allowed universities with forensic science departments to compete for the work.
None of Gordon Thomas Honeywell’s employees are forensic scientists, but the firm’s credentials are well-known to the NIJ. A Gordon Thomas Honeywell vice president, Christopher Asplen, spent four years at the Justice Department as an assistant U.S. attorney specializing in DNA. And on three of its government assignments, the firm has partnered with a Florida nonprofit led by a former NIJ employee.
Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Oliver said the government hired Gordon Thomas Honeywell “to take advantage of their expertise in DNA policy” — and not because of the firm’s ties to NIJ.
But Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is skeptical. At his direction, the Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating whether NIJ awards its grants fairly and openly.
“At the very least, there are questionable conflicts of interest, serious voids of transparency and unethical behavior unbecoming to the Department of Justice,” Shelby said in a statement to ProPublica.
In 2006, Shelby asked the National Academy of Sciences to study backlogs and other problems facing the nation’s crime labs. That report, released in February, urged Congress to create a new federal agency to police labs, saying NIJ wasn’t up to the job.
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Kellie Greene knows firsthand what can happen when labs fall behind.
In 1994, a stranger broke into Greene’s Orlando, Fla., home and beat and raped her. Greene lived in fear while waiting for police to find the man. But the DNA he left on her leggings went untested for more than three years.
When the test results finally came back, she learned that her attacker had committed an earlier rape. His DNA from that case was backlogged for two years — the window of time in which he attacked Greene.
“Had they been able to test the DNA in that earlier case, my rape would have never happened,” said Greene, who runs the advocacy group Speaking Out About Rape.
The backlog Greene discovered was hardly unusual.
To gauge the extent of the backlog nationwide,
NIJ asked Gordon Thomas Honeywell to study the problem. The firm found that local crime labs take 30 weeks, on average, to test rape evidence kits.
Despite the backlog, the Gordon Thomas Honeywell study was peppered with references to the benefits of collecting even more DNA from nonviolent criminals.
The 2004 Justice for All Act captured the mixed messages: One section allocated a half-billion dollars to help crime labs speed the DNA testing process, but another section required that DNA from all federal convicts, regardless of the severity of their crimes, be included in the national database, called CODIS. New technologies, meanwhile, made it possible to collect more samples from crime scenes.
In 2005, Congress expanded DNA collection again, through a provision buried in the Violence Against Women Act. It required DNA from anyone arrested for a federal crime — even if the person wasn’t convicted.
The new law also required federal agencies to take samples from people they detain, including immigrants suspected of being in the United States illegally. The Justice Department predicts that this additional collecting, which began in March, will throw 1.2 million new samples into the FBI’s lab each year. The lab already has a backlog of more than 290,000 samples.
As federal DNA laws ramped up, states expanded their collection as well.
Fifteen states now collect DNA upon arrest, up from two in 2002. Nineteen more states are considering similar legislation.
In 34 states, people convicted of some misdemeanors must submit to testing. Gordon Thomas Honeywell has lobbied lawmakers on behalf of its DNA clients in at least five of those states.
Oliver, the Justice Department spokeswoman, denied that Gordon Thomas Honeywell’s research drove the government’s new DNA policies. “It’s data collection; it’s not the formulation of policy,” she said. “That’s not a contractor’s responsibility.”
Yet in announcing the research grant for Gordon Thomas Honeywell in 2002, NIJ’s director at the time said the study would be “an important tool in crafting appropriate Department of Justice programs and policies.” Gordon Thomas Honeywell itself once bragged on its website that the research was “used as the underpinnings” of the Justice for All Act.
That line recently disappeared from the site.
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Gordon Thomas Honeywell has been uniquely positioned to lead the push for more DNA collection.
The firm was already lobbying for private DNA companies in 2002 when it hired Asplen, who had directed the Justice Department’s commission on DNA evidence. The next year, the firm got the first of its five NIJ-funded projects, including three DNA policy studies. The firm’s government work has earned it almost $700,000, according to NIJ e-mails and memos.
On some of the projects, Gordon Thomas Honeywell partnered with a nonprofit forensic science organization that provides research, development and training to crime labs. The National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, Fla., receives about 80 percent of its revenue from NIJ. Six of the center’s current and former employees and board members have worked for the agency.
TIMELINE: DNA SAMPLES IN THE UNITED STATES
While building its Justice Department connections, Gordon Thomas Honeywell also established strong political ties.
The firm and its lobbyists have contributed more than $100,000 to state and federal political candidates, including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who co-sponsored a 2002 DNA backlog reduction bill and more recently steered about $1 million in DNA-related earmarks to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, a Gordon Thomas Honeywell client.
The head of Gordon Thomas Honeywell’s Washington, D.C., office, Dale Learn, was a senior legislative aide to Murray for six years. (Learn hasn’t had any involvement with DNA clients, Asplen said.) Murray also briefly employed Nate Potter, another of the firm’s lobbyists.
In an interview, Asplen defended his company’s campaign for testing, saying a bigger DNA database helps solve crimes. He has even advocated for a national registry of every American’s DNA.
“It’s an absurd proposal not to do it simply because you’re going to create a backlog — that drives me out of my mind.”
There’s little doubt that expanded testing has boosted the bottom line of Gordon Thomas Honeywell’s DNA clients.
Applied Biosystems, an international scientific research company and the world’s largest producer of DNA testing equipment and supplies, has been a client for more than eight years — during which the firm saw its net revenue rise from about $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion.
“There is double-digit annual growth projected for [DNA] business, and that’s driven by a lot of legislation,” one of the company’s marketing directors said at a 2005 shareholders meeting. He added that the company is working “within the U.S. to further speed up the adoption of DNA legislation” and that DNA databases are “good business.”
The same goes for Orchid Cellmark, one of the nation’s largest private DNA testing labs and a Gordon Thomas Honeywell client from 2002 until 2007.
In a conference call with investors a few months before the Violence Against Women Act passed, Cellmark executives discussed future growth in their business, pointing to the section of the legislation that required additional testing. The company’s CEO said the lab was working with “a lobby group that helps us, sort of lobbying for legislative change.”
Asplen said the financial interests of Gordon Thomas Honeywell’s clients never cloud the firm’s NIJ-funded research. “All recommendations we made are based on numerical data,” he said. “That’s how we make sure we don’t cross boundaries.”
He said the firm also hired Washington State University’s governmental studies department to help with the 2002 study and “be a check” on any undue influence.
“I understand the value in asking the question of whether it’s appropriate” for a lobbying firm to do government research, Asplen said. “But because we’re the best experts in the field, the concern goes away.”
Besides, Asplen said, “[NIJ] certainly knew who our clients were, and clearly it was OK with them.”