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Atwater 'disappointed' as state fire lab suffers new setback

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has failed to regain full accreditation for a state lab that investigates fire debris for evidence of arson on behalf of law enforcement agencies. As state fire marshal, Atwater runs the lab, which analyzes thousands of cases every year across the state.

A three-member appeal board upheld nine of 11 negative findings against the lab. The American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD) launched an investigation last year after saying it had "several complaints," including one from John Lentini, a private investigator in Islamorada who repeatedly questioned the lab's work, citing one case in which a North Florida man was wrongly accused of arson and insurance fraud in a boat fire based on lab results.

Lentini said the lab has repeatedly found the presence of gasoline where none existed and ASCLD agreed, finding that in 26 gasoline-related cases it reviewed at random, 14 involved "an unsupported conclusion" by lab analysts.

The problems began in March when the North Carolina-based agency sent a review team to the lab in Havana, near Tallahassee, where it found a series of deficiencies and suspended the lab's accreditation in the fire debris category. Nearly all deficiencies were upheld on appeal, and the suspension of accreditation will remain in effect until the lab "has resolved all of the remaining findings," a report said.

Atwater has questioned the accrediting agency's motives. The Times/Herald's earlier reporting on the fire lab controversy is here.

The appeal panel found "insufficient supporting documentation" and said specific details "are not well documented." The report said: "There needs to be criteria applied that must be documented and retained in order to assume that another analysis would have a similar conclusion."

"It is the appeal panel belief that there are opportunities for improvement in the procedures at BFS (Bureau of Forensic Sciences)," said the report, which reiterated the review team's earlier finding of "questionable conclusions" in a number of cases.

"While we are disappointed with your decision to uphold most of the (team) findings of March 7, we have nonetheless been working diligently to resolve all outstanding matters of alleged non-compliance," Deputy Chief Financial Officer Jay Etheridge wrote on Sept. 16. "We are eager to have this matter resolved as soon as possible."

Etheridge's letter indicated that the CFO's office wants to arrange a follow-up site visit by the appeal board within the next three weeks.

Read Etheridge's full reply here, known as a Corrective Action Plan.