Two senior SBI officials snooped improperly

Staff WritersMarch 20, 2011 

  • The SBI has been under the microscope during the past year.

    After the exoneration of Greg Taylor, largely because of evidence withheld by a bureau agent, Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered an audit of the serology unit; that audit found 229 cases with similar flaws.

    The News & Observer reported in a series in August about widespread problems at the SBI, including agents who bullied the vulnerable and analysts who pushed past the bounds of accepted science to produce results pleasing to prosecutors.

    Cooper, who oversees the SBI, promised swift and sweeping reform. The SBI has made changes; the General Assembly is pushing for more. The state House of Representatives has approved reforms that mandate certification of all lab analysts, that require analysts and police to turn over all material to prosecutors and that create a scientific advisory group to consult with the SBI laboratory.

  • The News & Observer started reporting on the DCI network last year. The N&O requested copies of the FBI and SBI audits of local and state agencies on Aug. 25, 2010.

    State law says records are to be provided "as promptly as possible," but the Department of Justice moved slowly. In October, lawyers for Attorney General Roy Cooper said the request was onerous, amounting to more than 100,000 pages of documents.

    This was not The N&O's request. The newspaper made it clear that it was not asking for the tens of thousands of audited records - the raw data beneath the report. The newspaper was requesting the summary report that accompanies each audit. The summaries typically run between 30 and 50 pages for each audit.

    The N&O limited the request to 20 police and sheriff agencies that were also audited by the FBI. The first audits were provided in December. By Friday, the Attorney General's Office had provided the audits for 19 of the 20 agencies.

Two high-ranking officials at the State Bureau of Investigation have used the state and federal criminal information network for personal reasons, in violation of state and federal rules.

Jerry Ratley, the former assistant director who oversaw the network, used it to snoop on his ex-wife, her co-workers, her husband, the wife of an SBI agent and others, records reviewed by The News & Observer show.

Wendy Brinkley, who is directly responsible for policing and maintaining the network, used it to track her stepson's case in the courts, the records show.

Brinkley has suffered no apparent consequences. Ratley lost his access to the network in February 2009 and soon retired, SBI Director Greg McLeod said.

The SBI, under Brinkley and Ratley, has a checkered history of auditing state and local agencies that use the Division of Criminal Information network, known as the DCI network.

The bureau is responsible for auditing every law-enforcement agency that uses DCI every two years. The SBI has routinely found problems.

But the SBI has sometimes failed to find misuse caught by the FBI, which audits a small sampling of agencies every three years. In at least 20 cases, SBI auditors found agencies to be in compliance, while subsequent federal audits found problems in the same agencies, some of them serious.

In one case, SBI auditors gave a sheriff's office a clean bill of health. Weeks later, an FBI auditor found two sheriff's employees misusing the network, including an employee who was passing information to a friend in prison.

Federal and state laws and regulations are very clear: The DCI network is only to be used for appropriate criminal justice and law enforcement purposes. Sheriff's deputies who have misused the system have been decertified, fired and even prosecuted.

"Abusing the system is a gross misuse of power and position," said Frank Perry, a retired FBI agent and senior manager. "It is publicly owned information, and misuse would get an FBI agent fired on the first offense."

The criminal information network provides an information lifeline for officers in the field. It is a computerized network of local, state and federal data compiled from police, courts, prisons, drivers' records and more.

Police use it every day when stopping people or cars on the street. Is the car stolen? Is this person wanted for a crime? Does he have a history of violent crime?

Checking for his church

Jerry Ratley was a field agent who worked his way up to assistant director of the SBI. His responsibilities included the Division of Criminal Information. Ratley retired in March 2009, the month after a fellow assistant director, Pam Tully, ordered a check into Ratley's use of the DCI system, records show.

From June 2007 to February 2009, he ran dozens of queries that had no apparent law enforcement use. He ran them on members of his church. Some church members said he was doing a background check on potential church employees and volunteers.

That's still misuse. Employers or applicants can purchase limited criminal histories from a clerk of court or a more complete version from a private vendor. Police officers are not allowed to perform employment checks.

Kristi Allen, a single woman living in Wilson in 2007, said she does not know Ratley and was surprised that he had looked her up in the network.

At 6:35 p.m. on June 15, 2007, Ratley submitted a query using Allen's license plate number. That search generated her driver's license number, which Ratley used to gather more information. That search produced her name, which Ratley ran, producing her driver's license and photo.

"I don't know why he'd be doing that," said Allen, now married. "I just don't know."

Ratley declined to be interviewed for this story.

Ratley also ran several queries on his estranged wife, Deborah, in the run-up to their divorce. He ran queries on people she worked with. One was Gordon Deno, the emergency manager for Wilson County, who has since married Deborah. In his job, Deno knows the rules governing the network.

"He has no business looking at my information or my wife's," Deno said. "I'm not going to tolerate anything that causes my wife undue stress."

After being contacted by The N&O in the fall, Deno called the N.C. Department of Justice to complain. At that point, the SBI opened an investigation into Ratley's use of the system, a year and a half after Ratley retired.

McLeod, the SBI director, said Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby reviewed the case and declined to prosecute. Efforts to reach Willoughby were unsuccessful.

McLeod said Tuesday that the SBI reported Ratley's actions to the FBI in a phone conversation last fall and that the FBI approved how the SBI handled the case.

Checking on stepson

Wendy Brinkley, a midlevel supervisor, had a query run on her stepson, Taylor Brinkley, the day after he was arrested for breaking into a motor vehicle in Davie County. She had another check run after the court case concluded. Taylor Brinkley, 19, was convicted of a misdemeanor.

As the assistant special agent in charge of the DCI network, Brinkley knows the rules governing the system. She is the president of the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which shares secure information among law enforcement agencies, and she sits on the Advisory Policy Board of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services.

McLeod said he was unaware of Brinkley's actions until an interview last week with The News & Observer.

"She will be treated no differently than anybody else," McLeod said. "She will face the same consequences and be held to the same standards as anybody else in law enforcement."

On Saturday, McLeod said the SBI could find no record of the queries.

Brinkley declined to be interviewed.

Trouble for local officers

Local officers who misuse the criminal information network can lose their job, accreditation or worse.

In March 2007, SBI auditors examined the Alamance County Sheriff's Office and found it was in compliance with state and federal rules.

Six weeks later, an FBI auditor found that Lisa Overcash, a domestic violence coordinator for the sheriff, had been running unauthorized criminal background checks. One was on an inmate, Darrell T. Barber, a friend of Overcash. Prison officials later found the record check in Barber's possession in prison.

Overcash initially talked with her supervisor.

"I told her never to do this again," Joni Fisher wrote in a memo. "I told her I would do what I could to try to fix the problem and for her not to worry."

Further investigation showed that Fisher had her own problems: She had given DCI information to her husband after he was involved in a road rage incident, according to Alamance Sheriff Terry Johnson.

Overcash and Fisher were fired and were decertified as DCI users, Johnson said

"You don't use DCI information for personal reasons," Johnson said. "I had no problem sending them packing."

In Rockingham County in 2005, sheriff's Deputy Jennie Justice printed the prison record of a local newspaper editor and gave it to the publisher of an independent newspaper, which published a story.

Rockingham Sheriff Tim Page said he saw Justice's DCI sign-in in the margin of the newspaper photo. He fired Justice and referred her to the district attorney, who charged her with computer trespassing. She pleaded guilty and entered a first-time offender program, Page said. Her record has since been expunged.

Overcash, Fisher and Justice did not respond to letters, e-mails or phone calls.

McLeod, the SBI director, said his auditors were doing a good job of finding misuse of the criminal justice information system. He cited a September letter from an FBI supervisor saying that North Carolina's performance was consistent with other states.

"There's always room for improvement," McLeod said.

McLeod said Friday that the DCI Advisory Policy Board, which is led by an SBI representative, has not met since 1997. State rules mandate that it meet twice a year.

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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