8 Acquitted in Lab Fraud Case

Richardson workers were accused of falsifying results of environmental tests

By Todd Bensman, Staff Writer, Published November 21, 2001

A federal jury Tuesday acquitted eight lab workers of falsifying test results in what federal officials had said was the largest case of fraud in environmental testing in U.S. history.

Jurors rejected all 77 charges against the workers at Intertek Testing Services’ lab in Richardson. They had been accused of misrepresenting results in the cleanup of thousands of hazardous-waste sites and other environmental cases in a moneymaking scheme.

During the six-week trial, defense attorneys called only one witness, who testified on a minor point for about 15 minutes.

“This is a bungled investigation on a gigantic scale,” said Mick Mickelsen, an attorney for one of the defendants. “This investigation was a disaster for the government.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bradford, who led the government team that prosecuted the case, declined to discuss the verdict at length Tuesday.

“I’m disappointed, but the decision is one for the jury,” Mr. Bradford said.

Texas investigation

Former Intertek chemists and managers cleared of all federal charges Tuesday were Chukwujekwun Anozie, Michelle Georgina Delgado-Brown, Gesheng Dai, Martin Dale Jeffus, Michael Lynn Ludwick, Dale Thomas McQueen, Sheila Ann Petty, and William S. Wingert.

Ms. Petty, standing outside U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater’s courtroom wiping away tears, said she has lived in constant fear for her children since the indictments last year. She was pregnant with the youngest, who is now 10 months old, when government agents arrested her.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Ms. Petty said of the verdict. “I feel relieved of a ton of bricks.”

The Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, a group of 25 state and federal law enforcement agencies, began investigating Intertek in 1997. Leading agencies on the task force include the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Task force officials from those agencies said they did not consider the years of effort and financial expenditures a lost cause. They stressed that five of the original 13 indicted Intertek employees – and the corporation – had pleaded guilty before trial to falsifying lab reports. As part of its agreement, the corporation will pay a $9 million fine.

Defense attorneys for the eight people acquitted Tuesday said four of the guilty pleas were for crimes equivalent to misdemeanors.

EPA case

EPA officials said jurors may not have fully grasped the technological complexities of their case. They also said expensive government efforts to recheck cleanup sites to ensure they are as clean as past Intertek lab work suggested will continue indefinitely.

“We collected the evidence and presented it to the grand jury, and the grand jury indicted it,” said Tom Kohl, special agent in charge of the EPA criminal investigations unit in Dallas. “Our concern was exposure to the public of lab analyses that were faulty. The jury doesn’t change the fact that this lab created data that this agency determined was unreliable.”

The conservation commission’s Barbara Foreman, chairwoman of the 10-year-old environmental crimes task force, said she was disappointed in the verdict but expected the prosecution to be a warning to other testing companies.

“I think the jury may have felt that if it did not involve a huge bubbling polluted area, it didn’t constitute an environmental crime,” she said. “These cases are difficult to present to lay people. I believe we had a very strong prosecutable case or we wouldn’t have gotten this far. I’m just sorry the jury didn’t vote our way.”

All of the jurors declined requests for interviews.

Measuring cleanups

At a news conference in September, U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins and task force representatives announced the indictment of 13 Intertek employees.

The indictment accused the company of exposing the public in dozens of states to dangerous toxins by falsifying test results that government regulators depend on to measure the progress of cleanup efforts at polluted areas that include federal Superfund sites. Nearly 1,700 of the sites tested by Intertek were in Texas, including the former RSR lead smelter in West Dallas.

Intertek billed clients for $35.7 million in tests that later proved unusable. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was the biggest client, accounting for about $2 million in lab bills, prosecutors said.

The lab handled as many as 250,000 samples from 59,000 nationwide pollution sites between 1994 and 1997, federal officials said. Many sites have been re-tested and declared safe, but for others, pollution might have seeped off site or can’t be tested for other reasons.

Government officials, who had been under pressure from the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton to crack down on environmental crimes, said the case was the biggest and most significant in U.S. history.

But some of the accused said they thought government investigators and prosecutors went forward with a weak case motivated more by political considerations than by hard evidence that linked individuals to deliberate fraud.

Ms. Petty’s attorney, S. Cass Weiland, said the government ignored repeated pleas by Intertek to let the company sort out and fix irregularities that company officials said were not deliberate criminal acts.

Defense attorneys called only one witness in six weeks, he said, “because we felt like the government had not begun to prove a case. There was no case to prove, and we knew that going in.”

Mr. Coggins, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas who was appointed by Mr. Clinton, could not be reached for comment after Tuesday’s verdict.

Intertek attorneys had stressed that the company voluntarily approached government agents with the results of an internal investigation that had uncovered noncriminal irregularities.

Company officials and attorneys have since argued that none of the irregularities violated any of the laws governing cleanup efforts and that it was impossible to know whether any of the tests were wrong.