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Three agents who worked on Oklahoma bombing removed from FBI crime lab

January 29, 1997 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Three supervisors who evaluated evidence from the Oklahoma City bombing are out of their FBI crime lab jobs because of criticism in a Justice Department report, law enforcement officials and other sources say.

And because of the probe, one of them is no longer among the expert witnesses on explosive residues that prosecutors plan to call when Timothy McVeigh goes on trial in March for the 1995 truck-bombing that killed 168 people, officials said.

FBI Deputy Director Weldon Kennedy acknowledged Tuesday that ``the FBI and the Department Justice have together taken significant steps to ensure″ that ``problems identified by the inspector general’s inquiry″ have not compromised past, present or future prosecutions. ``We have chosen to err on the side of caution.″

But McVeigh’s attorney, Stephen Jones, said, ``It’s the worst self-inflicted wound since President Nixon released the White House tapes″ during the Watergate scandal.

Justice Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed confidence other experts can present all the forensic evidence they need in the Oklahoma City case.

The FBI announced late Monday the removal of four lab workers ``who had major responsibilities in explosives investigations,″ but did not identify them.

One was scientist-agent Frederic Whitehurst, a whistle-blower whose allegations of contamination and pro-prosecution bias in the lab prompted the investigation by the department’s inspector general.

Whitehurst, who was the subject of a separate Justice Department investigation of media leaks about his charges, was suspended with pay, his lawyer Stephen Kohn said.

After meeting Tuesday with Kennedy and other FBI officials, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said, ``I want to know why the FBI lumped the individuals who committed possible wrongdoing with the individual who spoke up about it. I have major questions about whether punishment of Whitehurst is appropriate, and I will follow up on this″ in discussions with the inspector general.

Grassley had said the suspension looked like retaliation for whistle-blowing; Kennedy denied that.

The draft reports of both investigations are still secret. The FBI said all four would receive pay and benefits while it decided whether they had engaged in misconduct.

Federal law enforcement officials identified the other three as:

_Dave Williams, a supervisory agent in a lab explosives unit.

_Roger Martz, chief of a lab chemistry and toxicology unit.

_James T. ``Tom″ Thurman, chief of a lab explosives unit.

They were transferred to other work but not suspended, officials said.

Officials and sources familiar with the case described their roles in the Oklahoma City case this way:

Williams supervised collection of explosives evidence in Oklahoma City and its removal to the FBI lab here. Prosecutors have dropped plans to call him as an expert witness.

Thurman was quoted in an FBI affidavit supporting the arrest and search warrants against McVeigh.

Martz conducted some tests on Oklahoma City evidence at the lab.

Jones has taken a deposition from Whitehurst and indicated he may call him as a defense witness.

Whitehurst has alleged Martz was not properly trained to conduct experiments and testify about high explosives, and that Thurman only had a degree in political science. The government has said it never intended to call Martz or Thurman as expert witnesses, but Martz may be called to testify about the chain of custody of evidence.

But Jones’ first effort to use Whitehurst to attack the government’s case was not successful. Defense attorneys challenged the affidavits and argued warrants obtained as a result should be thrown out. But a federal judge ruled the affidavits were sufficient and allowed the evidence to stand.

Meantime, the FBI on Tuesday listed some steps begun ``long before the Justice Department study began″ to improve the lab, which conducts more than 600,000 examinations annually for local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies.

A technical group, including experts from Britain, is being formed to improve bombing and explosives analysis. A new quality assurance unit monitors lab work. And for the first time, the FBI is seeking to have its lab accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.