Colorado state laboratory makes changes after allegations of misconduct

DENVER - The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said it has made changes after misconduct allegations at its toxicology laboratory.

A former employee made allegations that state lab workers were improperly trained and did not secure blood and urine samples properly.

Mountain States Employers Council conducted an investigation and issued a report March 18. Last week, Attorney General John Suthers warned district attorneys across the state and the criminal defense bar about the allegations saying the allegations "could be considered mitigating evidence in the prosecution of certain criminal cases."


-- Inadequate training allegations --

The report, dated March 18, says a former laboratory technician, identified as Employee 18, made several allegations including that blood alcohol training for toxicology lab employees is inadequate and that blood and urine samples are not securely stored in the lab.

Employee 18 said their training lasted three weeks and was conducted by other employees who had not been educated on how to train new analysts. The employee said friends with similar jobs received one year of training or more.

Employee 18 said they were then asked to train other employees.

"I was very uncomfortable performing that role because no one had taught me how to do it," Employee 18 said in the report. "In addition, I was required to handle a full work load while training the new employees, which made it difficult for me to perform my job properly. I ran as many samples as I could, but it was impossible for me to keep up with the work load."

Employee 18 said they also made mistakes because they had not been trained on all the procedures.

"I made a mistake when I ran the test by possibly pulling the wrong sample and sending a report with the wrong result," Employee 18.

Some employees are listed in the report saying they felt their training was adequate, while others admitted they were not trained on how to properly use various pieces of equipment.

"I was also not taught that the hydrogen generator had to be filled with water. I learned that when the alarm sounded on the generator," Employee 1 said in the report.

The report writer found that while some supervisors provided adequate training, once they left, the process changed.

"Whereas Supervisor 4 and Supervisor 5 apparently provided a significant amount of personal training to employees learning how to conduct blood alcohol tests, employees who have conducted training since their departure have relied on the checklist developed by Supervisor 5 and appear to have lacked an understanding of how to conduct training beyond the use of the checklist and some observation of trainees," the report writer said.

Several employees also complained that they were not properly trained to testify in court.

"Supervisor 3 told me the only way to get used to it was to just get on the stand and do it," said Employee 2. "S/he did not offer any formal training."

State officials said since the investigation, it has completed a review of all staff training and training is now done by a competency-assessed analyst.

"Staff competency is assessed after training and annually thereafter," officials said.

The Colorado Department of Health also said that all appropriate staff members have attended (or are scheduled to attend) training to testify in court including mock court sessions.


-- Allegations of storage problems --

Employee 18 also alleged that refrigerators used to store blood and urine samples are not locked, making them accessible by unauthorized personnel.

Supervisor 3 told investigators s/he was not concerned about the allegation.

"I have not felt a need to lock the refrigerators themselves because, in the [NUMBER] years I have worked here, we have never had a sample tampered with and we have never lost a sample," said Supervisor 3.

State officials said locks were placed on the refrigerators in March.

"There are four levels of locks between the front door and the samples," according to a statement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "The samples have tamper seals on them."


-- Allegations of biased testimony --

Employee 18 also accused Supervisor 3 of giving biased testimony.

"When s/he returned from testifying at trial, s/he frequently said things like, 'I really stuck it to the defendant today' and 'I'm sure he's going to jail,'" said Employee 18.  "S/he also said things like, 'You just have to play the defense attorney's game' and laughed about the process. S/he frequently became visibly excited when s/he learned that defendants had been convicted. When I observed Supervisor 3 testify in a trial once, I noticed that s/he was very friendly and accommodating toward the prosecutor, but very cold and defensive toward the defense attorney. I feel like the role of an analyst and scientist is to maintain independence and to give unbiased testimony."

Other employees told the investigator similar things about Supervisor 3.

"Supervisor 3 is very pro-prosecution," said employee 7.

"S/he is very obviously biased toward the prosecution," said Employee 6. "I was always very uncomfortable with that because I always tried to be completely unbiased in my reports and in my testimony."

"Supervisor 3 frequently expresses joy when s/he learns that someone has been convicted, and disappointment when s/he learns that someone has been acquitted," said Employee 1. "I feel like our job is to present the science, not to be concerned whether someone is guilty."

Supervisor 3, another supervisor and another employee disputed the allegations.

"I don't care about whether defendants go to jail because science is neutral," said Supervisor 3 during the investigation. "I have talked about times when I thought an attorney wasn't prepared, asked a stupid question, or made me cry. I have not expressed joy, satisfaction, or happiness after learning that a defendant was convicted."

"I think s/he works hard to satisfy her/his clients, who are District Attorneys," said Employee 11.

"I have not noticed Supervisor 3 saying anything suggesting that s/he is biased toward the defense or the prosecution," saying Employee 9.


-- Report conclusion --

The investigator wrote in the report that s/he believes many of the allegations by Employee 18 are accurate.

"As indicated above, this investigator finds that the allegations made by Employee 18 and other employees of the toxicology lab are accurate based on the information available," the investigator wrote. "This investigator notes that Supervisor 3 denied conduct that was consistently corroborated by some employees.  Her/his denials only served to damage her/his credibility."

State officials said since the report was issued, an interim manager has been assigned for toxicology lab operations and staff training has been revised.

"It is critical that the scientific work of the toxicology lab meets the highest standards, as members of the public and law enforcement rely on the lab to provide accurate blood-alcohol analysis of the samples we test," said Department Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer Chris Urbina. "The investigation was conducted so improvements could be made."

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