GARNER — In a humble commercial strip mall in Johnston County, the nation's forensic science power players have built an empire.
In a single office, callers can reach the nation's largest accreditation group for forensic laboratories - and a for-profit consulting agency that coaches those labs on how to pass accreditation. Callers can also contact a trade association for forensic lab directors and the chief national forensic science lobbying group that helps shape the future of the field.
For some of the groups, correspondence is directed to suites that don't exist, but the mail ends up in the same office: headquarters for ASCLD-LAB, the accreditation group under scrutiny for missing problems at the State Bureau of Investigation.
The coziness of ASCLD-LAB and its affiliates is raising the question whether the groups have enough distance to be true to science, not to each other.
"I think it's questionable that they have all these organizations that claim to be separate running out of what appears to be the same office," said Amy Driver, a forensic scientist in Washington, D.C., who blogged about the issue this month. Driver, a Raleigh native, said she doesn't understand who is profiting and exactly who is involved in the groups.
Operations at 139 Technology Drive in Garner are claiming headlines in North Carolina, too, in the wake of problems at the SBI.
The News & Observer has reported that some SBI analysts and agents pushed past the bounds of accepted science to offer results pleasing to prosecutors. An audit commissioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper highlighted 229 cases from 1987 to 2003 tainted by analysts withholding results of more sophisticated blood tests in reports for prosecutors.
ASCLD-LAB certified the work of the SBI lab starting in 1988. It missed many problems in the blood analysis unit. Two leaders of the accreditation agency are retired SBI agents who had key management roles at the lab at the time problems persisted.
Some legislators suggested this month that the SBI shop for another accreditation group.
ASCLD's leaders say that their setup may look unusual to outsiders but that they have separated the interests of the consulting group and the accreditation group. They say sharing space and administrative resources is convenient, not collusive.
For its accreditation work at the SBI, ASCLD-LAB used standards and protocols it wrote.
In 2005, an international science organization revised standards for labs. Like many forensic labs around the world, the SBI crime lab is gearing up to meet these more demanding requirements. In light of recent problems, SBI Director Greg McLeod has accelerated the timetable for meeting the international standards to 2011.
Seeing an opportunity
ASCLD's accreditation group recently started accrediting under the new international standards.
In 2007, the ASCLD trade association saw an opportunity: Lab directors needed help gearing up for the higher standards. So the trade association created a for-profit company, ASCLD Consulting, to tap into that market. This group teaches labs how to pass the tests for ASCLD accreditation under the new standards.
A spokeswoman for the SBI said the agency has not yet decided whether to hire consultants before its next accreditation.
Any profits from the consulting firm would return to the trade association, said trade association President Greg Matheson. Matheson said the consulting group hasn't made much money yet, but he hopes future profits will defray some of the trade association's costs, namely travel expenses when Matheson travels to Washington.
The new standards also raised the bar for accreditation groups like ASCLD-LAB, and prohibits them from offering consulting to the labs they accredit.
Under the new standards a related organization may provide consulting services but must have different management, different personnel and a distinctly different name and logo. The consultants must not be able to influence the outcome of an accreditation assessment.
Victor Gandy, head of the InterAmerican Accreditation Cooperation, which coordinates a team of experts to determine accreditation groups' compliance with the new international standards, said ASCLD-LAB is in good standing and he is aware of no complaints on impartiality related to the consulting business.
The various ASCLD entities, which have about a dozen paid employees, share a common address: a modest 10-unit office building in Johnston County, just off Interstate 40 at exit 312.
The trade association, ASCLD, is listed at 139K Technology Drive. There is no suite K.
The accrediting agency, ASCLD-LAB, is listed at 139J Technology Drive.
The for-profit business, ASCLD Consulting, is listed at 139M Technology Drive. There is no suite M.
The lobbying arm, the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, is listed at 139P Technology Drive. There is no suite P.
A telephone call to the consulting firm was answered by its registered agent, Cindy Barbour. She also takes calls for the trade association. Barbour is the daughter of Ralph Keaton, who directs the accreditation agency.
Related or not?
Keaton said someone looking from the outside might think the organizations are all related but they are not.
"They are not run out of this office," Keaton said, explaining that the trade association merely routes mail and telephone calls to people who don't have a permanent office.
Joseph Bono, contract manager for the consulting group, said his group is independent.
"The implication that the two are in any way affiliated in any other way than to better forensic science ... I don't agree with that implication," said Bono. "That's where the mail goes. That's it. There's no connection."
Earlier this month, the trade association decided to redirect mail and phone calls for the consulting group to Michigan, home to the trade association's new part-time executive director.
Matheson, the trade association's new president, said that the consulting business had no affiliation with the accreditation group but that the proximity posed an image problem.
"It's not a good thing from a perception standpoint," said Matheson.
The N.C. Secretary of State requires companies to report a real, physical address in their incorporation papers so registered agents can be served with legal papers.
"That's the purpose of a registered agent: Someone has to be the person on the hook," said spokesman George Jeter.
Jeter said companies sometimes list different suites or office numbers for the purpose of sorting mail and change to a real address when contacted.
"If it's not a real address, that has to be changed," Jeter said.
Keaton, alerted to the Secretary of State's concern, said the addresses would be corrected.
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