INTERNAL probes found evidence problems in FBI Oklahoma office


Thursday, May 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two internal reviews documented ``serious deficiencies'' and ``systemic problems'' with evidence handling inside the FBI's Oklahoma City office at the height of the Timothy McVeigh bombing investigation.

The problems surfaced in an unrelated prison death case in the summer of 1995, four months into the bombing investigation. The internal reports did not cite any problems with the McVeigh case evidence.

But the documents, many of which remain under court seal, broadly criticize the Oklahoma FBI's day-to-day handling of evidence and cite some of the same FBI personnel who were involved in the bombing case. Excerpts from the sealed reports were obtained by The Associated Press.

For instance, an agent who was awarded the FBI's highest award for bravery in the bombing case made false statements, some under oath, about evidence in the August 1995 death of prisoner Kenneth Michael Trentadue, the Justice Department inspector general concluded.

FBI officials acknowledge the Oklahoma City office had problems but say they have been fixed. And they say the personnel cited in the internal reports played only minor roles in the bombing case because a team of national experts arranged a separate facility to gather evidence about the bombing.

``We have absolute confidence in the investigative efforts of the Oklahoma City bombing task force with regards to the entire investigation,'' said Bill Carter, FBI spokesman in Washington.

Special Agent in Charge Richard Marquise, who took over the Oklahoma City office in 1999, said the problems have been rectified. ``Things have changed,'' he said. ``Obviously the problems were there. We recognize we had a problem.''

The FBI's conduct is receiving renewed scrutiny after revelations it discovered thousands of pages of witness interviews and other evidence in the McVeigh case just days before the convicted Oklahoma City bomber was to be executed. The FBI has blamed a computer glitch, and personnel who incorrectly thought documents weren't relative.

The internal reviews identified a myriad of problems in the Oklahoma City bureau, including that evidence was inventoried belatedly, lost or destroyed. In one case, photographs were misplaced; in another a bloody sheet was improperly stored, and became contaminated, court records show.

In 1999, a team from the Justice Department's inspector general's office reported ``systemic problems with the FBI OKC evidence program.'' Separately, an internal FBI review concluded a ``very serious problem had arisen in the FBI OKC evidence program.''

The lawyer who represented McVeigh at trial said he believes the government had an obligation to divulge the problems under court rulings that require prosecutors to disclose information that casts doubt on the credibility or professionalism of law enforcement involved in the case.

``I think it should have been (divulged),'' attorney Stephen Jones said.

Jones said he eventually learned about the evidence-handling problem from an Arkansas Internet publication, but not until well after McVeigh already had exhausted his appeals. Jones, who no longer represents McVeigh, said his former client's new lawyers used the information as part of a last-ditch relief motion that was turned down by the courts.

The Oklahoma City evidence-handling problems surfaced in connection with prisoner Trentadue's death at a local federal detention center.

Trentadue was found hanging from his cell and the death was ruled a suicide. His family challenged the conclusion, alleging the inmate's body was badly bruised.

The internal investigations ultimately upheld the suicide conclusion but identified widespread problems, including: false statements by prison officials and an FBI agent; 41 pieces of evidence that were missing; and the FBI's destruction of a key original document after it had been repeatedly requested by the Justice Department.

One internal FBI memo indicates agents in Oklahoma City had concealed from the department the fact that evidence was missing.

``Fortunately, DOJ has not asked for any serials (evidence) which we have not been able to produce and they are not aware anything was misplaced,'' a supervisory special agent wrote his superiors in the Oklahoma City FBI office in 1997.

Trentadue's family sued the government, alleging belatedly discovered evidence disputed the suicide ruling. A judge this month awarded the family $1.1 million.

Former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich, who oversaw much of the Trentadue review, said in an interview that FBI officials uncharacteristically resisted and hampered the inquiry.

``I will say in general that the FBI has strongly resisted IG reviews at their onset and generally have been very cooperative once they've begun,'' Bromwich said. ``The major exception to that was Trentadue, where they fought us tooth and nail.''

Bromwich said the Trentadue case and another inquiry - this one dealing with the FBI's handling of classified information about China - demonstrate that the nation's premiere law enforcement agency has problems with documents and evidence.

``We found very widespread problems with the way data was input into the computer system, the training of FBI agents and other personnel working on that system and the ability to retrieve information from the system,'' he said.

The reviews in the Trentadue matter concluded that problems with evidence logging extended beyond the prison death case.

``We became concerned about broader problems in the way evidence was handled by FBI OKC,'' the inspector general reported.

Susanna Mullally, then the FBI's top official on handling evidence, also was sent from Washington to review the Oklahoma City office, and produced a multipage report.

``The review found serious deficiencies in the way the FBI OKC handled evidence,'' including inaccurate or missing forms and evidence that wasn't processed for years, the documents show.

The documents state the FBI's senior evidence control technician for Oklahoma City was reassigned in August 1995 to the McVeigh case. She was replaced by a former mail clerk who wasn't fully trained, the reports state.

``We believe her lack of formal training was a contributing factor to the problems,'' the inspector general said of the replacement. The replacement has since left the FBI, officials said.

But the problems went beyond evidence handling.

The inspector general concluded FBI agent Jeffrey Jenkins ``made several false statements relating to the investigation into Trentadue's death, several of them while under oath.'' Jenkins, who won the shield of valor for his rescue work upon arriving at the scene of the McVeigh bombing, denied any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors declined to prosecute Jenkins, who was referred for disciplinary action. FBI officials said they couldn't discuss the ongoing proceedings.