RALEIGH — State legislators attacked the credibility of a laboratory accreditation group that gave the State Bureau of Investigation its seal of approval during years in which blood analysts withheld critical test results.
The leaders suggested Thursday that the SBI shop for a new accreditation group to replace the national ASCLD-LAB. Such pressure could sever the close relationship between the SBI and ASCLD-LAB, which has been headed since 1995 by one of the SBI's own, Ralph Keaton. Keaton went to ASCLD-LAB after a 30-year career at the bureau.
On Thursday, legislators attempted to spread some blame to ASCLD-LAB for problems at the SBI.
"Does ASCLD have skin in this game?" asked Sen. Ed Jones, a Democrat from northeastern North Carolina and co-chairman of a committee to address issues at the SBI. "What's their liability in this?"
That question has reverberated in recent months, intensified by realizations that ASCLD-LAB is managed by three former SBI officials and has headquarters off Interstate 40 in Garner, less than 10 miles from the SBI's main crime lab.
The SBI has been under fire in recent months. Last month, The News & Observer published a series, "Agents Secrets," that showed that some analysts have pushed past the bounds of accepted science to deliver answers pleasing to prosecutors. In August, two former FBI officials released an audit of the SBI's blood analysis unit that identified more than 200 cases tainted by withheld test results. To blame: lax leadership, misleading policies and analysts largely left to their own devices to decide how to report blood tests.
Keaton, who heads ASCLD-LAB, was No. 2 at the SBI lab for eight of these years. Another ASCLD-LAB official, John Neuner, had been a high-ranking SBI lab official after Keaton left the bureau in 1995. The blood analysis problems spanned both of their tenures, persisting from 1987 to 2003.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat and co-chairman of the committee, pressed SBI officials about Keaton's role in these problems during his tenure at the SBI.
"I have no idea whether Mr. Keaton was involved in ... any of these policies, but it's a question that has to be asked," Glazier said.
Keaton was traveling Thursday, and attempts to reach him failed.
'A minimum standard'
ASCLD-LAB, which accredits the vast majority of forensic crime labs in America, had granted accreditation to the SBI every five years starting in 1988. It offered no guidance and did not enforce requirements for specific language in reports.
A team of auditors inspected the lab every five years, reviewing five cases for each analyst. SBI leaders selected the cases the auditors reviewed.
Chris Swecker, one of the authors of the recent serology audit, cast doubt Thursday on ASCLD-LAB's requirements.
"I went into it thinking [ASCLD-LAB] was the gold standard," said Swecker, a former FBI official and now a Charlotte lawyer. "I now think it is a minimum standard."
Problems not detected
Glazier urged the new SBI director. Greg McLeod, to consider hiring a new accreditation agency, noting that ASCLD-LAB didn't find any of the serology problems during four different audits.
"Accreditation truly is the final check against this stuff," Glazier said, "and it didn't happen here."
McLeod said he will ask his staff to evaluate other accreditation programs but noted that ASCLD-LAB accredits more labs than any other group.
McLeod said internal investigators haven't yet been able to pin down Keaton's role in faulty serology practices.
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