Follow-up Audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Laboratory Operations*
Report No. 04-17
Office of the Inspector General
FINDING 1: EFFECTIVENESS OF SERVICES
We found that DEA laboratory services were effective and the quality of work well managed. The DEA has established standards and procedures to ensure the validity of laboratory results, reviewed laboratories to ensure compliance with these standards, and routinely tested its analysts through proficiency testing programs. The laboratories have been accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors / Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB).22 DEA's customers reported to us that the laboratory services provided resulted in appropriate case outcomes and analyses capable of withstanding legal challenges, and they were very satisfied with the services provided. However, we found that the turnaround times from receipt of exhibits to the completion of analysis were significantly longer for latent print and digital services than for drug analyses. In our judgment, longer turnaround times for latent print and digital exhibits were caused by resource limitations. Although laboratory customers indicated the longer turnaround times did not significantly affect most case outcomes, customers indicated they want the analyses faster. Procedures for handling latent print exhibits also could be improved to help identify more suspects. Although the nature of materials submitted often made it difficult to develop prints suitable for comparison, DEA procedures allowed many people to handle exhibits prior to latent print examination, increasing the possibility that print residues may be obliterated.
DEA's regional laboratories analyze drug and latent print exhibits, and the DEL examines digital exhibits, to support the investigation and prosecution of drug crimes. The laboratories must analyze exhibits accurately and report results timely to agents and prosecutors. The results must be valid to achieve appropriate case outcomes and support expert testimony.
To evaluate the effectiveness of regional laboratory services provided by the DEA, we assessed how services contributed to the outcomes of investigations and prosecutions, whether services were provided in time to be useful to customers, how satisfied customers were with laboratory services, and whether selected DEA controls over the quality of services were adequate. To quantify the actual amount of time taken for laboratories to turn around results on exhibits, we computed the time elapsed between the receipt of exhibits by laboratories to the completion of analysis.23 To evaluate the effectiveness of services used for intelligence purposes, we interviewed officials of the DEA's Office of Intelligence and the ONDCP.
We obtained information about the usefulness and timeliness of laboratory services on particular exhibits by selecting a statistical sample of exhibits and surveying the customers using the questionnaire in Appendix II. The sample consisted of 635 exhibits submitted to the regional and digital laboratories by federal customers. We selected closed cases in order to obtain information about how DEA laboratory evidence had withstood testing through the legal process.24 This approach ensured that the sample would include exhibits that had been tested through case prosecution and any appeals and provided feedback from customers about whether cases had been compromised due to problems with laboratory services. We selected the sample of exhibits to include drug, latent print, and digital evidence. We also sent additional questionnaires to nine state and local customers, all of whom received laboratory services related to controlled substances only.
Of the 635 questionnaires sent to federal customers, 572 went to customers of the regional laboratories for drug and latent print analyses, and 63 went to customers of the DEL for digital exhibits. Of the 572 that went to customers of drug and latent print services, 187 included latent print services. We received responses for 486 exhibits, or about 76 percent of the questionnaires sent to federal customers. Many of the 486 responses did not answer every question on each questionnaire. We used the total number of actual responses to each question to compute percentages of customers who responded a particular way. We received responses from five (55 percent) of the nine state and local customers.
We also interviewed DEA officials, agents, and other federal and local customers and asked respondents to our questionnaire on exhibits to rate the overall quality of services received from DEA laboratories on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being poor and 5 being excellent. Customers of the DEA laboratories generally reported very high levels of satisfaction. All types of customers we interviewed told us: 1) that they were satisfied with DEA laboratory services, 2) the laboratories were responsive to requests for expedited service and special needs, and 3) they never had any problems with evidence being lost or compromised by the laboratories.25
One significant measure we used to determine the quality and effectiveness of laboratory services was whether any of the sampled exhibits used in the prosecution of a case had been successfully challenged through the legal process. Customers reported that no DEA laboratory analysis on any sampled exhibit that played a role in the prosecution of a case had been successfully challenged.
We attributed the positive results of laboratory services on case outcomes and customer satisfaction to the DEA's overall management of the laboratories. We also assessed selected management controls over the quality of services by evaluating: 1) the professional accreditation status of the laboratories, 2) internal reviews and follow up performed by the DEA, and 3) laboratory compliance with selected quality management standards such as proficiency testing and calibration of instruments.
We found that the DEA established standards and procedures to ensure the quality of services provided by the regional laboratories. The laboratories were accredited by the ASCLD/LAB.26 This internationally recognized accreditation provides assurance that the laboratories meet various standards for forensic laboratory operations established by the ASCLD/LAB. In addition, the DEA performed frequent reviews of individual laboratories and followed up to ensure compliance with essential standards. The DEA managed laboratory compliance with accreditation and other quality standards effectively, including proficiency testing programs, calibration and maintenance of scientific instruments, technical review of analyses, and reliability of reagents.
Outcomes. We asked customers if the laboratory services on each exhibit had contributed to an investigation, prosecution, conviction, sentence, or played some other role. We received 406 customer responses to this question on exhibits submitted for drug analysis. All 406 indicated that drug services contributed affirmatively to a case, or had analyzed or confirmed a substance. The 5 responses from state and local customers all indicated the laboratory services had contributed to an investigation, prosecution, or conviction.
A number of responses indicated that the result of services had been that no controlled substance was found. We counted these responses as contributing to a case if the respondent also replied that the service had been provided in time to be useful, because the information was available for case development and might lead to alternate solutions.
Several respondents to the questionnaire furnished examples of the benefits of DEA laboratory services on drugs:
Customer Satisfaction. On the rating scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent and 1 being poor, customers rated laboratory services on exhibits submitted for drug analysis with an average rating of 4.6. This was the same average rating for all exhibit types found in the prior audit. During interviews, DEA field division personnel and other customers told us they were very satisfied with laboratory services for the analysis of controlled substances, that the laboratories were responsive to special requests, and that their working relationships with the laboratories were good to excellent. An Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the FBI in Miami commended the Southeast Laboratory for its drug services, and specifically the technical assistance provided by the Southeast Laboratory during the anthrax investigation in Miami.
Timeliness. We used the same sample discussed above to ask customers if laboratory services on each exhibit were performed in time to be useful to them. Of 386 total responses to this question for drug exhibits, 381 (99 percent) responded that the drug services had been provided in time to be useful. All of the state and local respondents also indicated that laboratory services on all exhibits were provided in time to be useful. This represented a slight improvement over the survey results of the prior audit of 97 percent of the responses.
Although the responses indicated the laboratory results had been provided in time to be useful, four respondents complained about the amount of time the specific analysis had taken or about timeliness in general on exhibits for which both drug and latent print examinations had been requested. (Our prior audit received similar comments indicating that the results were reported in time to be useful but were slow to be reported.) Customers stated they wanted shorter turnaround times.
DEA officials told us the laboratories have been actively working toward a 1-month turnaround time from receipt in the laboratory to completion of the analysis for drug exhibits, and the Laboratory System Strategic Plan sets an ultimate target for all exhibits to be analyzed within two weeks. We analyzed actual turnaround times for the universe of analyzed drug exhibits used to select our sample for FY 2002.27 We compared the date each exhibit was received in the laboratory to the date the analysis information was entered into STRIDE.28 We used this to calculate the percentages of exhibits completed within certain timeframes and the average number of days between receipt and completion of analysis.29 The chart below reflects the results of this analysis for drug exhibits.
We found that more than half of the drug exhibits were analyzed within one month of receipt in the laboratories, and an additional 22 percent were analyzed by the end of the second month. Six percent of drug exhibits were completed more than 4 months after receipt by the laboratories.
Analysis completion times varied among the seven regional laboratories, as shown in the chart below. Five of the seven regional laboratories completed drug analysis on more than 70 percent of exhibits by the end of the second month.
The high percentage of exhibits completed during the first month after receipt in the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory is misleading because of different procedures and the large number and nature of exhibits from the MPDC in this laboratory.31 The MPDC operates its own vault at the laboratory and its exhibits are not recorded as having been received by DEA until DEA chemists obtain them from the vault for analysis. Any waiting period between receipt in the MPDC's vault and removal by the DEA chemist is not reflected in the figures for these exhibits. Also, MPDC exhibits are generally received in quantities used by individuals, rather than bulk quantities that must be sampled and tested multiple times.
We computed the average number of days between receipt of exhibits in the laboratories to the completion of analysis for the various exhibit types for FY 2002, and found that the average number of days for analysis varied significantly by exhibit type, shown in the chart below.32 This is discussed further in the following sections on latent print and digital services.
Latent Print Services
Outcomes. As we did for drug services, we asked DEA laboratory customers if the laboratory services on each exhibit analyzed for latent prints had contributed to an investigation, identification, prosecution, conviction, sentence, or played some other role. We received a total of 131 responses on latent print services. Of the 131 responses, 128 (98 percent) indicated the analysis contributed to the case in some way. One Special Agent's comment indicated how useful latent print examinations can be in DEA cases.
Eighteen of the 131 responses indicated that the results of services had been that no latent prints usable for comparison were developed. We counted these responses as contributing to the case if the respondent also replied that the service had been provided in time to be useful, because the information was available for case development and might lead to alternate solutions.
Another measure for analyzing the outcomes of latent print services is the percentage of exhibits for which suspects are identified. To evaluate how often latent print examinations resulted in the identification of suspects, we analyzed data reported by regional laboratories to the DEA's Office of Forensic Sciences. The number of fingerprint exhibits analyzed that resulted in the identification of suspects averaged 289 per year (4.4 percent) for the 3-year period.
Based on our interviews with DEA staff, we found that the nature of the materials submitted to the laboratories for fingerprint services is the primary obstacle to developing latent prints. Materials subjected to fingerprint examination frequently were plastic and paper wrappings with well-worn and irregular surfaces that were handled by many people over a long time. Although the DEA cannot control the nature or source of exhibits submitted, it could improve other factors within its control to increase the number of latent print identifications, such as increasing access to database resources, increasing the specialization of supervisors, and improving evidence handling procedures, as summarized below.
Customer Satisfaction. The average rating for exhibits submitted for latent print analysis was 4.4, only slightly lower than the average of 4.6 for drug services. While customer satisfaction was also high for latent print services, prints suitable for comparison were frequently not developed or identified, and the results were less timely. Responses from two Special Agents (on four exhibits) specifically commented that the rating of 5 overall for laboratory services on the sampled exhibits applied to the drug services, but that they would give the latent print services on the same exhibits a rating of 1.
During interviews and in responses to our questionnaires, customers expressed the following concerns about latent print services:
Timeliness. Of the 130 responses to the question about timeliness on latent print services, 121 (93 percent) indicated the services had been provided in time to be useful. Customers reported they had received the drug analysis, but not the fingerprint results, for 3 exhibits submitted for both drug and fingerprint analysis at the time they completed the questionnaires.
We were not able to compute actual turnaround times for all latent print examinations for all laboratories because the DEA did not capture this information in the STRIDE. The STRIDE information system was built to record information on drugs and their analysis. The system was modified to a limited degree to accommodate recording some information on other types of exhibits as the role of the DEA laboratories expanded. However, the system did not allow laboratories to record more than one date of analysis per exhibit. Laboratories entered into STRIDE the dates and results of the drug analyses for drug exhibits, but not the results of latent print analyses on drug exhibits. Most, about two-thirds, of the exhibits analyzed for latent prints by the DEA laboratories were exhibits submitted for drug analysis, such as packaging in which the drugs were found. The DEA has begun a project that will replace STRIDE with a system designed to better meet the needs of the laboratories, with complete data for all types of exhibits and examinations. The pilot operation for the replacement system is scheduled for summer 2004.
The only latent print analysis dates found in STRIDE were for non-drug exhibits (i.e., those exhibits submitted for latent print analysis only), and not all of these were being recorded in the STRIDE.38 About one-third of the exhibits analyzed during FY 2002 for latent prints were non-drug exhibits. For these exhibits, all the laboratories combined, except for the Southeast, completed about 65 percent by the end of the second month after receipt in the laboratory, compared with 78 percent of drug analyses completed within the same period (or 70 percent without the MPDC exhibits).39 Sixteen percent of the non-drug exhibits were completed more than 4 months after receipt in the laboratories, compared with 6 percent for drug exhibits, (or 8 percent without the MPDC exhibits). These differences are not as significant as the latent print completion times on drug and non-drug exhibits combined, discussed below.
Some regional laboratories maintained their own local databases of latent print examinations to supplement the limited support provided by the STRIDE. Only two of the regional laboratories we visited maintained sufficient data to evaluate turnaround time from receipt of an exhibit in the laboratory to completion of latent print analyses for fiscal year 2002. We used information from databases maintained by the South Central and Western Laboratories to estimate the time customers had to wait for results. Although we were unable to verify the reliability of this information, we used the information because we believed it was important to determine if there were significant differences in turnaround times for different types of exhibits analyzed by the laboratories. The chart below shows the results of this analysis for latent print examinations.
For latent print examinations performed during fiscal year 2002, the two laboratories (combined) completed 13 percent in the first month and another 15 percent in the second month, for an accumulated total of 28 percent within 2 months, compared with 78 percent (or 70 percent without the MPDC exhibits) for drug exhibits. The percentage of latent print exhibits completed more than 4 months after receipt was 47 percent, compared with only 6 percent (or 8 percent without the MPDC exhibits) for drug exhibits. Additionally, the average number of days from receipt to completion of analysis was 94 and 258 for the Western and South Central Laboratories, respectively, both of which were far longer than the average of 41 days (or 52 days without the MPDC exhibits) for drug exhibits.40
The chart below shows the differences between the two laboratories. While the turnaround times varied between these two laboratories, both performed less quickly on latent print services than any laboratories performed on drug services. (Compare this with the chart on page 19.)
According to DEA staff, the turnaround times for latent print examinations were significantly longer than turnaround times for drug exhibits because DEA laboratories do not have sufficient resources to handle the latent print workload. The DEA had 209 positions allocated for forensic chemists in regional laboratories, but only 23 positions allocated for fingerprint specialists for FY 2003.41 The timeliness responses from customers and the data analysis of turnaround times also strongly suggest that the allocated fingerprint positions do not support turnaround times comparable to those for drug services. Also, since some DEA field offices submit non-drug exhibits for latent print examinations to non-DEA laboratories, the demand for latent print services is actually higher than the data show.
DEA laboratory staff also indicated that DEA agents frequently request that certain exhibits be examined immediately due to exigencies, such as an upcoming court case. Exhibits were not handled on a first-in first-out basis, causing delays in handling exhibits of lower priority. All delays in examining exhibits for latent prints may also negatively affect the outcome of analysis because print residues evaporate over time, so the longer it takes the exhibit to get to the specialist for analysis, the less likely it is that any prints will be found.
Outcomes. Of the 42 customer responses on digital exhibits to the question about how laboratory services had contributed to a case, 35 (83 percent) reported the results as having contributed to the case. The remaining seven digital exhibits had not been analyzed in time to be useful.42
Customer Satisfaction. Responses we received rating the services for exhibits submitted for digital analysis shared the average rating of 4.6 with drug services.
Two of the digital exhibits in our sample that had not been analyzed belonged to a case in which the analysis of more critical digital exhibits contributed significantly to investigations in more than four DEA offices. The Special Agent responded,
Timeliness. Of the 38 customer responses on digital exhibits, only 31 (82 percent) reported that digital services were provided in time to be useful. One Special Agent commented, "The exhibit . . . was in the custody of the . . . lab for thirteen months. . . . None of the computers, zip drives, or floppy disks were ever analyzed."
One DEA field office reported that the plea agreement in one case might have resulted in more serious charges if the digital services had been provided before the agreement was made. The Special Agent reported that the analysis took more than 1 year, by which time the defendant had pled to a lesser charge. The Agent added, however, that the laboratory does a good job overall.
We analyzed the actual time between the receipt of digital exhibits and the completion of analysis for each case analyzed during fiscal year 2002 at the DEL. For this purpose, we obtained a data extract of a tracking database used by the DEL because the DEA does not record dates of analysis for digital exhibits in STRIDE. The DEL tracked this information by case, rather than by exhibit. The results are shown below.
The results indicate that digital services were, like the latent print services, significantly less timely than drug services. The timeliness responses from customers and data analysis of turnaround times strongly suggest that the allocated digital evidence positions did not support turnaround times comparable to those for drug services. The longer turnaround times for digital services may have resulted from the numbers of analysts employed to perform this type of analysis. The DEA had 6 total positions, including supervisors, allocated for digital evidence analysts for FY 2003. The DEA added contract staff to support digital exhibit examinations during fiscal year 2003, but these were not permanent positions. The DEL Director reported to us in October 2003 that the oldest exhibits currently in the vault waiting to be analyzed were received in April 2003, so nothing over six months old was waiting for analysis. Compared with the average number of days for analysis for 2002 (331), the timeliness appeared to have improved since the contracted personnel were obtained.
To assess customer satisfaction with the STRL services that support intelligence needs, we interviewed the intelligence customers who receive information directly from the laboratory. The STRL performs research, analyzes controlled substances for intelligence use, analyzes controlled substances from international sources, and analyzes toolmarks and logos on solid dosage units and drug packaging. Work performed for intelligence purposes generates strategic intelligence through the analysis of drug samples obtained in the U.S. and foreign countries. The STRL's drug signature programs analyze samples to determine processing methods, geographic origins, and manufacturers for heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. The laboratory also analyzes toolmarks and logos on tablets, capsules, LSD blotter paper, and cocaine, heroin, and steroid packaging to determine manufacturing sources, which is called the Source Determination Program.43
We interviewed officials of the DEA Office of Intelligence and the ONDCP to find out how satisfied they were with information and other services provided by the STRL. Both the Office of Intelligence and the ONDCP reported there is no other source for this type of information and they value the work of the STRL highly. Both offices used the information to develop strategies and focus resources, and indicated they held regular meetings with the STRL to discuss trends and developments, and tried to address needs as they arise. Both customers indicated the Office of Forensic Sciences and the STRL were helpful and accommodating.
According to laboratory customers, the DEA's laboratory services have contributed effectively to appropriate case outcomes and intelligence needs. The DEA has managed the quality of laboratory services to support the investigation and prosecution of drug crimes, and customers consistently reported high levels of satisfaction with services. However, turnaround times for latent print and digital services were significantly longer than drug services and customers would like the timeliness of services improved. Longer analysis times for latent print and computer forensic examinations appear to result from resource limitations.
Latent prints suitable for comparison were frequently not developed largely because of the nature of the materials being examined. However, other factors are more controllable, such as the expertise of latent print supervisors, databases used for matching prints, the length of time it takes to begin a latent print analysis, and procedures that allow many people to handle the exhibits before they are available to the fingerprint specialists. Such factors may also be obstacles to developing and identifying usable prints.
We believe the DEA should strengthen the laboratory fingerprint program to maximize the results of examinations, and improve the timeliness of latent print and digital evidence services to a level comparable to laboratory performance on drug exhibits.
We recommend the DEA:
FINDING 2: MANAGEMENT CONTROLS OVER EVIDENCE AND OTHER CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES
Our testing of inventories and case files at the regional laboratories indicated that controls over evidence and other controlled substances were generally adequate. We identified minor instances of non-compliance with DEA control standards, but determined these did not constitute material control weaknesses. DEA has implemented adequate procedures to control and account for the receipt, storage, transfer, and disposition of exhibits, and the laboratories complied substantially with the requirements. However, we did note that more than 10 percent of exhibits we tested were out of compliance with the DEA standard to destroy exhibits within 90 days after laboratories received authorization for the destruction.
The DEA's laboratories receive, store, transfer, and eventually dispose of all exhibits that are submitted for forensic analysis.44 The laboratories also maintain [DELETED] custody of all drug evidence seized by DEA field offices once it has been submitted for analysis, with the exception of bulk marijuana and bulk ephedrine.45 The laboratories maintain DEA drug exhibits until they are destroyed, and return exhibits submitted by customers other than DEA and non-drug DEA exhibits to DEA field offices following analysis.
The laboratories maintain other controlled substances for use as reference standards, training materials, proficiency testing samples, and reverse undercover drugs for sales and "flashes" by agents. The laboratories are also responsible for maintaining accountability for all evidence and other controlled substances through disposition. Accountability is supported by a combination of automated and manual information systems and records.
Two automated information systems are used to record information about evidence in all regional laboratories. The Laboratory Evidence Management System (LEMS) is a DEA database designed to track the movement of exhibits within laboratories, when they are transferred out to agents or defense attorneys for court purposes, and when they are destroyed. The LEMS creates and reads bar codes associated with exhibits, and produces a variety of reports to support destruction of exhibits and other laboratory activities. The LEMS was intended to replace manual recording on DEA-307 index cards, which serves the same functions.46 However, the laboratories continue to maintain DEA-307 cards to use for back up if the LEMS goes down, and because LEMS did not always function as intended when it was new.47
The DEA also entered inventory and destruction information about exhibits into the System to Retrieve Information on Drug Evidence (STRIDE) and various manual logs and other records to help track evidence and actions. STRIDE was designed and enhanced to record inventory and analysis information on exhibits.48 STRIDE pre-dated LEMS and included some functionality for tracking exhibits through laboratory procedures. As DEA laboratories expanded into the additional disciplines of fingerprint and digital examinations, the DEA found ways to use STRIDE to record some data about these exhibits. STRIDE currently contains complete data only for drug analyses on drug exhibits. It does not contain analysis information related to fingerprint examinations on drug exhibits or digital evidence exhibits.
STRIDE serves as the central repository of information about exhibits, and LEMS is used to track exhibits in and out of individual vaults. Laboratory staff members perform duplicate and inefficient data entry to keep the various systems of records updated. In addition to being inefficient, entering the same data more than once increases the risk of data entry errors.
The DEA has initiated a contract to integrate its automated and manual information systems and improve functional support to its laboratories. As part of this integration project, the DEA plans to implement radio frequency tags and scanners that should simplify accountability over exhibits at the laboratories. This should ensure that the location of any exhibit in a laboratory at any time can be determined, and that no exhibit is lost or destroyed inadvertently. The system should also make accountability far more efficient than was the case during our audit.
Our prior audit found that most controls over evidence and other controlled substances were satisfactory, but that certain controls could be improved. The results of our testing at the regional laboratories indicated that most controls were adequate and allowed only minor instances of non-compliance. We determined these instances did not represent material control weaknesses.
Receipt of Evidence Exhibits. [DELETED]
Evidence technicians (ETs) checked to make sure packages were properly sealed, and compared information on package labels with information on DEA-7 forms that were required to accompany exhibits.49 The ETs also compared information on shipping labels and registered receipt labels prior to accepting packages from [DELETED]. [DELETED] If information was consistent and packages were properly sealed, exhibits were accepted and signed for by the laboratories. The ETs entered receipt information into LEMS, which then printed a label for the exhibit and a DEA-307 index card. The ETs then stored the exhibits in appropriate locations in evidence vaults. Much of the same information about the receipt of each exhibit was subsequently entered into the STRIDE, usually by the scientific intelligence technician, with additional information about the suspected drug.
If the paperwork accompanying exhibits contained discrepancies, the laboratories generally tried to obtain corrected paperwork before returning exhibits to the submitting office. If packages were not properly sealed, laboratories returned the package to the submitting office. We observed procedures and reviewed receipt documentation. All but one of the laboratories we visited maintained a log of exhibits that had been rejected and returned. At the time of our visit, the Southeast Laboratory did not maintain a log of rejected exhibits that had been returned to the submitting office. The DEA's procedures did not require such a log, and the Southeast Laboratory was maintaining records of the registered receipt or comparable tracking numbers on individual forms.
Control Documentation in Case Files. We verified control actions documented in case files for a judgmental sample of 218 exhibits in the four regional laboratories we visited, and compared data between the case files and STRIDE. We looked for properly completed, signed, and dated DEA forms reflecting information on exhibit submittal, analysis, and eventual destruction, return to the submitting agency, or retention for official use. We found that laboratories complied with documentation requirements.
Storage and Inventories. The regional laboratories stored evidence exhibits [DELETED]. The laboratories controlled access to vaults by using electronic card readers and deadbolt locks. We observed security procedures at the laboratories we visited to test whether access to the vaults was controlled. Laboratory chemists and fingerprint specialists stored exhibits they had signed out for analysis in "in-process vaults" in each laboratory, which had separate security from the main vaults. Each analyst had a lock-box and locked cage to secure the exhibits he or she signed out, and only analysts had access to the in-process vaults.
The DEA required each laboratory to conduct complete physical inventories of evidence annually and within 30 days of the departure or reassignment of staff members with access to the evidence vaults. We reviewed inventory documentation and determined that inventories were being performed as required.50
We judgmentally sampled 370 exhibits that were recorded in LEMS as being located in the vaults at the four regional laboratories we visited. We confirmed the vault location recorded in LEMS for each exhibit by observing laboratory employees retrieve the exhibit from the labeled storage location. We confirmed the accuracy of information on exhibit labels by comparing the identifying information on all labels on the exhibits with LEMS information.51 The laboratories were able to locate each exhibit we sampled, or provided documentation to show its transfer to another location, and we verified the identifying information between LEMS, the evidence label, and the LEMS label.
Our 1995 audit had found that post-analysis weights had not been recorded on some exhibit labels, as was required by the DEA, and recommended that the DEA ensure that laboratory personnel record the gross weight of exhibits after analysis on exhibit labels. Using the inventory sample of 370 exhibits, we observed if the analyst had recorded a post-analysis weight for the exhibit on the label.52 We found general compliance with this standard. A total of 7 (about 2 percent) of 370 exhibits we tested were out of compliance.53
Controls Over Exhibits Out of the Vault. Exhibits were transferred from the vaults internally within laboratories to chemists and fingerprint specialists for analysis, and externally to Special Agents for use in court proceedings. All transfers were recorded in LEMS and on DEA-307 cards, and the external transfers to Agents were additionally recorded on DEA-12 forms and in STRIDE.54
The DEA used an established standard for analysts to return exhibits to the main evidence vaults within 30 days of removal. In the prior audit the OIG recommended that the DEA reduce the time that analysts held exhibits out of the vault following the completion of analysis. The DEA responded by establishing a standard requiring analysts to return exhibits within five working days after completion of the analysis. We tested 631 exhibits that were out of the vaults during our site visits at the four regional laboratories we visited to determine whether they were held out for more than 30 days overall and more than 5 days after completion of analysis. Of the 631 exhibits tested, 10 exhibits (1.6 percent) had been out of vaults to analysts more than 5 working days after analysis. Of the same 631 exhibits, 4 (less than 1 percent) had been out for more than 30 days altogether.
Laboratories transfer exhibits out to Special Agents for court proceedings, and the DEA required laboratories to follow up with DEA Field Divisions quarterly to ascertain the status of exhibits that have been "out to court" for more than 20 days. We performed limited testing on exhibits "out to court" more than 20 days at the time of our site visits. We reviewed documentation maintained by the laboratories and selected all of the exhibits currently out to court to the DEA Field Divisions in the cities we visited for follow up at the Field Divisions. We found that the laboratories and Field Divisions were able to account for all exhibits currently out to court.
Other Controlled Substances. Laboratories were maintaining inventories, or stockpiles, of other controlled substances for use as reference standards, training materials, proficiency testing samples, and reverse undercover drugs for sales and "flashes" by agents. We interviewed laboratory personnel, reviewed logs and other documentation maintained by the laboratories to account for these stockpiles, and verified entire inventories or tested them judgmentally. We found that the laboratories were able to account for the materials in these stockpiles. Although we identified problems with accountability and missing records for the training stockpile for the period prior to January 2001 at the South Central laboratory, the Office of Forensic Sciences had issued specific procedures in January 2001 to improve accountability for training materials.55
Disposition. Laboratories dispose of exhibits by returning them to submitting agencies, destroying them, or retaining them for official use. Non-drug exhibits and exhibits submitted by agencies other than the DEA are returned to the submitting agency after the forensic analysis has been completed. Laboratories are allowed to destroy exhibits after receiving an authorization to do so from the appropriate field office.56 Laboratories may choose to retain for official use certain exhibits that have been authorized for destruction. "Official use" includes training, proficiency testing, and reverse undercover operations. [DELETED]
LEMS provided reports to help control the process and identify exhibits that had been selected for destruction, but had not been authorized for destruction.
We reviewed records of destruction events performed by regional laboratories to determine if discrepancies identified in LEMS reports in destruction batches had been adequately reconciled. We found that laboratories did not maintain complete records of the resolution of discrepancies in the destruction batches prior to February 2002, and some did not maintain any control record of what had been destroyed other than the automated information in LEMS, which could be modified after the fact. The Office of Forensic Sciences identified these weaknesses and issued revised draft procedures in February 2002 for destruction that require laboratories to sign and maintain control reports of the destruction batches. Evidence destruction control and documentation appeared adequate since then. The results of weaknesses in destruction procedures prior to February 2002 included evidence being destroyed without authorization, missing evidence being presumed destroyed but lacking any record of the presumed destruction, and evidence that should have been destroyed being found in vaults. The DEA had required corrective actions to be taken, and followed up with laboratories to obtain reports that the actions had, in fact, been completed.
The DEA required laboratories to destroy exhibits within 90 days of receiving authorization from the field. We also tested the sample of 218 exhibits in case files to determine if the exhibits were destroyed timely. A total of 25 exhibits (11.5 percent) in 218 case files we reviewed were destroyed more than 90 days after the laboratories' receipt of authorization. All but three of these (1 percent) were destroyed within 120 days.
We reviewed internal reports and interviewed officials of the DEA's laboratory system, Office of Professional Responsibility, and the OIG's Investigation Division to identify problems with evidence accountability not indicated in our audit tests. The DEA reports identified discrepancies and weaknesses the DEA took action to correct. These problems included identifying evidence missing from the vault without documentation, finding evidence in vaults for which destruction documents had been executed, identifying data inconsistencies between duplicative systems of records, and identifying exhibits with missing or incorrect labels. The DEA corrected the identified problems and procedural weaknesses prior to the start of our audit.
The DEA requires laboratories to report unresolved inventory discrepancies, or missing evidence, when discovered. The Office of Professional Responsibility told us that most missing evidence cases related to evidence lost in transit or before it reached the laboratories, and that one criminal case had been brought. However, the DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility and laboratories also concluded that inadvertent destruction had caused a few cases of missing evidence during the audit period. We reviewed documentation associated with three such instances of inadvertent destruction.
In our judgment, inadequate controls over the selection and recording of exhibits had been applied during the particular destruction events, each of which took place before the DEA issued revised destruction procedures in February 2002. The DEA now requires laboratory officials to sign and maintain control reports of destructions demonstrating the successful resolution of discrepancies. The Office of Forensic Sciences also added critical destruction procedures to the checklist it uses to perform management visits. Our audit testing did not identify any cases of missing evidence, and the DEA's revised procedures for destruction appeared to provide adequate control after they were issued.
In our judgment, the DEA significantly improved its oversight over evidence by the inclusion of independent staff in performing physical inventories of the vaults.58 In 2001, the Office of Forensic Sciences began participating in complete inventories of evidence at each laboratory and issuing reports of the results.59 Staff members from DEA headquarters and other laboratories joined laboratory staff to reconcile all evidence inventory items in the laboratory with all inventory documentation. The DEA identified a number of problems with evidence accountability, some of which were not found or reported as a result of inventories that had been performed previously by laboratory staff.
The DEA's laboratories have generally maintained adequate accountability and control over evidence and other controlled substances, and have corrected weaknesses identified through DEA internal reviews. In addition, the DEA's plan to integrate the various systems of records should provide improved efficiency and automated control over the movement of exhibits.
The DEA had established procedures for laboratories to control and account for the receipt, storage, transfer, and disposition of exhibits, and the laboratories complied substantially with these requirements. The DEA also provided oversight and ensured that corrective actions were taken when warranted, and required laboratories to report unresolved instances of missing evidence for follow-up action. More than 10 percent of sampled exhibits were out of compliance with the DEA standard to destroy exhibits within 90 days after laboratories received authorization for the destruction. This finding suggests that destruction events should be scheduled more often than every 90 days to help ensure that all exhibits are destroyed timely.
We recommend the DEA:
FINDING 3: FACILITIES
Our 1995 audit found that several of DEA's laboratories were housed in aging facilities that needed to be replaced. Since 1995, the DEA has replaced the Special Testing and Research, Mid-Atlantic, South Central, and Southwest Laboratories with newly constructed facilities. In this follow-up audit we found that the Southeast Laboratory, which had not been replaced, has ventilation problems that pose health risks to employees and make employee drug testing ineffective. The Western Laboratory also has a history of ventilation problems that prevents effective employee drug testing. [DELETED]
In the 1995 audit we found that the laboratories were generally housed in aging facilities, and that five of the facilities needed to be replaced.60 Specifically, the audit found overcrowding, inadequate ventilation, insufficient storage space for exhibits, and inadequate fume hood space. At the time of the prior audit, the DEA had plans to replace five laboratories with new facilities that were to conform to current standards for laboratory design, safety, security, and health. The DEA planned to obtain congressional approval to fund a 5-year capital improvement project to construct four new regional laboratories and a new STRL.61
The 1995 audit recommended that the DEA Administrator ensure that reasonable alternatives for the number, location, and size of future laboratories be adequately considered prior to construction of the planned five new regional laboratories in case the DEA could not obtain funding to replace the laboratories. The DEA obtained funding for the construction project, and built new facilities for four of the five laboratories. The Southeast Laboratory has not been replaced.
As part of this audit, we followed up to determine if the DEA had completed its 5-year project to replace the five laboratories, and to assess conditions at the laboratories we visited. We visited the STRL, Southeast, North Central, South Central, and Western Laboratories.
We found that the DEA had replaced four of the five facilities planned for replacement in the 5-year program at a combined build-out cost of about $20.5 million: the STRL, Mid-Atlantic, South Central, and Southwest Laboratories. The Southeast Laboratory in Miami had not yet been replaced because the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) prevented the planned construction project.62
The DEA had planned for a new facility to be completed in Miami by January 2002. In March 2000, the GSA entered into a contract for the new laboratory to be constructed on property that bordered land leased by the DOD. In June 2000, the DOD began condemnation proceedings to prevent the landowner from building the DEA facility on this property. DEA officials told us this was because the DOD believed the security of its Southern Command could be compromised by potential narco-terrorists if the facility were built, in part because a building on the site would block the view of the Southern Command's trespassing detectors. The Department of Justice represented the DOD in this matter, and as a result of these proceedings, the plan for the new laboratory was not fulfilled.
Congress has approved the use of carry-over funds from prior fiscal years for a new plan to replace the Southeast Laboratory. The Deputy Assistant Administrator told us that the DEA is moving the project along as fast as possible. During March 2003, the prospectus for the project was awaiting approval by the Office of Management and Budget.
We observed conditions in each laboratory we visited. We also reviewed reports of two studies performed at the Southeast Laboratory that identified serious problems with the facility. For the other laboratories we visited, we selected conditions from the Ventilation Assessment and the Industrial Hygiene Survey that had been performed for the Southeast Laboratory, and observed selected standards from the National Institutes of Justice Forensics Laboratory Handbook. The following describes the results of our visits to regional laboratories.
Southeast Laboratory. The Southeast Laboratory is still located in the facility visited during the 1995 audit. The building in which the laboratory is located was built over 25 years ago. Office space was modified to serve as a laboratory and evidence repository. The conditions at the facility are deficient. For example, employees at the laboratory are not included in the DEA Drug Deterrence (employee testing) Program because the facility's ventilation and exhaust systems do not provide a non-contaminated environment.
At the time of the prior audit, the laboratory had space for two groups of chemists and needed space for a third group. The vault was too small to hold all the evidence [DELETED].
At the DEA's request, the Federal Occupational Health Service of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted a ventilation assessment of the facility in September 2002. In its report dated April 7, 2003, the PHS concluded that the building was not suitable for use as a laboratory because of the potential health and safety effects on employees.63 The PHS recommended that the laboratory and its support operations be relocated to temporary facilities, and that planning for "fast track" facility construction, major renovations, or lease space build out should be initiated immediately.
Specifically, the PHS found that:
These findings were particularly troubling because many of them repeated findings from a prior study. At the request of the DEA, the PHS had also performed an Industrial Hygiene Survey, issued in November 2000, prior to the Ventilation Assessment. This survey found breathing zone air samples for solvents below applicable standards, widespread contamination of specific surfaces with controlled substances, and potential sources of contamination from air handling units, condensate pans, and water damaged ceiling tiles, among others.64 The report noted that condensate pans did not drain properly and contained a slimy growth, probably algae, which potentially amplify the growth of microbes and present a significant heath risk. The report additionally described the reentry of exhausts into the air intakes on the air handling unit located on the roof as a potential source of contamination.
In addition to several specific housekeeping recommendations, the report recommended that the DEA discard water-damaged porous materials, such as ceiling tile, to minimize the potential for amplification of microbial growth. The report also recommended periodic maintenance of the air handling units to ensure condensate pans are draining properly to prevent the growth of algae and fungi. Conditions related to the air handling units appeared to persist between the two reports in 2000 and 2002, and laboratory officials told us there had been no major renovation of the air handling units.
Southeast Laboratory officials indicated they worked through the General Services Administration (GSA) to try to obtain major renovations for the laboratory, but that they deal with the landlord directly on everyday maintenance issues. The laboratory officials did not believe that the GSA had attempted to use enforcement measures to enforce terms of the lease with either the previous or the current landlord.65 Laboratory officials also told us that the previous landlord had not been responsive to problems, but that the new landlord is more responsive. We also found that the Southeast Laboratory was not documenting its maintenance requests to the landlord for services. In our judgment, documentation should be maintained and used to obtain needed improvements and help enforce the terms of the current lease. Until the Southeast Laboratory is improved or relocated, the indoor air quality presents potential health risks.
North Central Laboratory. The North Central Laboratory in Chicago is housed in an older office building, but the facility appeared adequate to support its work. Space for this laboratory had been modified to meet new laboratory standards during the prior audit. We noted no significant problems at this location.
South Central Laboratory. Based on our site visit and interviews with DEA staff, we determined that the newly constructed facility for the South Central Laboratory in Dallas provided excellent working conditions and space for the laboratory, administrative, vault, and loading dock areas. Security measures at the new laboratory are satisfactory overall [DELETED].
Western Laboratory. The Western Laboratory is housed in an older office building with inadequate vault space and a history of ventilation problems. Employees of the Western Laboratory, like those in the Southeast Laboratory, are not subject to the DEA's drug testing program because indoor air contamination would invalidate the results. The laboratory recently made improvements to the ventilation in the main evidence vault and to fume hoods, but no ventilation assessment has been made since the improvements, and some laboratory employees were not convinced the vault ventilation had been adequately improved. The laboratory is also planning to lease new space in the building to expand the main evidence vault. The facility otherwise appears adequate to support the laboratory's work.
The DEA has replaced the STRL, Mid-Atlantic, South Central, and Southwest Laboratories with new facilities that are adequate. The Southeast Laboratory, however, has not yet been replaced or relocated, and it has serious ventilation problems with potential health risks to employees. The Western Laboratory also is located a building with a history of significant ventilation problems. Southeast and Western Laboratory employees are not subject to the DEA's drug testing program because of indoor air contamination.
The Department of Defense opposed the DEA's original plan to replace the Southeast Laboratory facility by January 2002. The DEA has obtained funding from Congress for a new construction plan which is proceeding through approvals to replace the laboratory. The DEA should act as quickly as possible to relocate the Southeast Laboratory, ensure that employees at the Southeast and Western Laboratories are not exposed to toxigenic or other substances that could affect their health detrimentally [DELETED].
We recommend the DEA:
*Because this report contained information designated as "Law Enforcement Sensitive" by the Drug Enforcement Administration, we redacted (whited out) that information from the version of the report that is being publicly released. Where such information was redacted is noted in the report.