FBI investigating lab specialist's conduct in Oklahoma City bombing case

Thursday, August 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The FBI internal affairs office is investigating the crime lab's chief of scientific analysis about his conduct in the Oklahoma City bombing case, according to people familiar with the investigation.

The Associated Press reported last spring that a transcript of a Justice Department interview showed that FBI scientific analysis unit chief Steven Burmeister initially had alleged in 1995 that his lab colleagues performed shoddy work in Timothy McVeigh's case, but then retracted several statements before appearing as a prosecution witness at the trial.

AP also reported that lawyers for some FBI lab employees sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001, just days before McVeigh was executed for the April 1995 bombing, alleging Burmeister may have been pressured to give false testimony in the case. No action was taken and the allegation was never divulged to McVeigh's lawyers.

The revelation about Burmeister, however, became an issue in the Oklahoma state murder trial of McVeigh conspirator Terry Nichols this spring. Burmeister had given key testimony against McVeigh and was originally slated to be a prosecution witness in the new trial for Nichols, whom Oklahoma prosecutors want to put to death.

Burmeister has been withdrawn as a state witness by the prosecutors.

The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations against agents, recently opened an internal investigation into Burmeister's conduct in the McVeigh case, including his recantation, according to persons familiar with the investigation.

One of Burmeister's former colleagues said the FBI internal affairs office had contacted him in the past month.

``I was contacted by my attorney and told that the FBI OPR was looking to talk to me about an OPR investigation on Burmeister,'' said Frederic Whitehurst, the former FBI scientist whose whistleblowing allegations in the mid-1990s divulged shoddy work inside the FBI lab and led to widespread changes.

FBI officials refused to discuss the investigation but when AP first reported the existence of the transcripts of Burmeister's interview by the Justice Department inspector general, FBI lab director Dwight Adams said he considered Burmeister to be one of the bureau's top lab experts.

Adams said Burmeister was not pressured to change his testimony about problems at the FBI lab in the McVeigh case and rather did so because he learned some of his earlier allegations to the inspector general were inaccurate or imprecise.

``He made the effort because he is such a meticulous, honest person that he wanted the IG report to be correct,'' Adams said. ``He truly is one of our best.''

A letter obtained by AP shows that lawyers for FBI lab employees, including Whitehurst, wrote Ashcroft 10 days before McVeigh was executed in 2001, claiming Burmeister may have given false testimony about key forensic evidence in the case. The FBI denies the allegations.

The Justice Department never divulged the letter to McVeigh's lawyers.

The transcripts show Burmeister originally told the Justice Department in 1995 that one of his lab colleagues, unit chief Roger Martz, ``erred in some examinations'' he performed in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Burmeister reversed course in late 1996, just before testifying at McVeigh's trial. ``I don't think he erred in any of these exams. ... I think he did an acceptable job there,'' Burmeister said.

In his 1995 interview, Burmeister criticized Martz's decision to vacuum clothing suspected of having explosives evidence, calling it an ``unqualified technique.'' But in his 1996 interview, he gave a different assessment.

``I'm incorrect in saying that because I do believe the vacuuming technique, overall, is a qualified technique,'' Burmeister said.

On the lab's handling of a knife, Burmeister said in 1995 that his colleagues should have rinsed it, rather than using a moistened swab to loosen possible explosive evidence. But in 1996, Burmeister said that both swabbing and rinsing were ``viable sample-removing techniques.''

And Burmeister retracted his 1995 comment that Martz had not been qualified to perform one of the explosives tests he performed on McVeigh evidence. ``I'm incorrect in saying that he is not qualified. ... I would consider him fully qualified,'' he said in 1996.