13 Indicted in Biggest Lab Fraud in American History

By Cat Lazaroff

DALLAS, Texas, September 22, 2000 (ENS) - An environmental laboratory falsified test results at thousands of Superfund sites across the United States, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday. Thirteen former employees of the now closed lab have been indicted in what federal authorities are calling the biggest case of laboratory fraud in the nation’s history.

The falsified tests could mean that some sites now listed as uncontaminated could hold harmful chemicals and other pollutants, federal officials said. But they emphasized that so far, none of the sites they have retested have been found to contain health hazards.

Denver

Regulators depend on laboratory tests when they authorize reuse of polluted sites, like this Home Depot store on a former Superfund site in Denver, Colorado (Three photos courtesy EPA)
Intertek Testing Services Environmental Labs, Inc. (ITS), was a full service environmental testing laboratory that analyzed samples of air, liquids and soil as a subcontractor for federal, state and local government agencies, as well as private environmental consulting and engineering firms.

Between January 1994 and December 1997, ITS analyzed more than 59,000 separate environmental projects, involving as many as 250,000 separate tests. The company charged about $35.7 million for those tests.

Most of the test sites are in Texas, where the ITS lab was located, or other Western states.

The Department of Justice, which investigated the firm on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies, charges that ITS falsified testing data to hide miscalibrated instruments that did not meet quality control standards.

"These fraudulent acts were committed with the specific intent to save time and money that would otherwise have been spent on properly maintaining the testing equipment," or repeating failed tests, the Justice Department said in a release.

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EPA personnel collecting water samples at a suspected oil spill site. Accurate test results are crucial in determing the presence and extent of pollutants
ITS also boosted its business by fraudulently producing what appeared to be acceptable environmental sample analysis data, the department charged. The result: millions of dollars in taxpayer money paid for inadequate tests.

"Regulatory agencies and private companies must be able to rely on analyses performed by independent testing laboratories," said Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general for the environment. "When a laboratory fails to follow basic scientific protocol, this can undermine the integrity of environmental protection efforts."

Each of the 13 former ITS employees is charged with helping to alter data or present fraudulent reports between 1988 and 1997. The defendants are charged with various counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and presenting false claims. They face possible lengthy jail terms and fines ranging from $1 million to $7.5 million.

Martin Dale Jeffus, a former ITS vice president and the defendant facing the largest number of charges, could face a maximum term of 155 years in jail for 30 counts of fraud crimes.

Other ITS employees charged include managers, supervisors and lab analysts.

air

An emergency responder conducts air sampling in a holding tank at an abandoned industrial facility
In a statement, London based ITS said the tests were performed by a subsidiary that is now out of business.

"While this employee conduct was unacceptable, we want to emphasize that the EPA has stated it concurs with our findings that the tests were not substantially in error and that none of the tested sites has been found to pose a risk to safety or health," said Richard Nelson, chief executive officer of ITS.

ITS officials said the company voluntarily disclosed to the EPA that there were problems at the plant in Richardson, Texas, as far back as January 1998.

At that time, ITS tried to win legal protection through the agency’s voluntary disclosure program, but was turned down, the company said.

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Lab analysis of emission from alternative fuel vehicles (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Paul Coggins, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas who will help prosecute the case, said "none of the data coming out of this Richardson lab can be relied on," as tests were "falsified on a grand scale."

"Too many employees and ex-employees have told investigators that the falsifications were routine and commonplace. We almost certainly have some property owners who don't even realize today that this lab did the test," said Coggins.

"Those who would gamble with our environment will face the full force of the law," Coggins said. "The most dangerous contaminant to our environment is greed."