OSBI facing questions over employee safety
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
The mission is protecting the public, but did the state's top law enforcement agency fail to protect their own employees?
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation administration is facing questions over whether or not employees were knowingly put in harm’s way by working in a building that contained potential health hazards. The questions are coming from employees and family members of long-time employees who want answers.
Shirley Atkinson’s life was dedicated to service. She was a long-time employee of the OSBI’s Southwest office and laboratory in Lawton. She served as the secretary which, for the small office, entailed everything from answering phones to assisting in the preparation of paperwork for case prosecution.
Slowly, Shirley became ill.
“I don't know when she first noticed it,” her husband Darrell recalled holding back tears, “But I finally convinced her to go to the doctor because she had been complaining about things in 2010.”
The diagnosis was cancer.
Shirley lost her battle against the disease April 8, 2015.
“I haven't gotten to where that's easy to talk about,” Darrell said with tears in his eyes. He believes his wife’s health problems and ultimate death were caused, in part, by the building in which she worked.
“A good portion of the people who had worked there [the Southwest OSBI office] long term have developed cancer,” Darrell told FOX 25.
The problem in the Lawton OSBI office is mold. Scientists say mold can cause a myriad of health problems and the carcinogenic effects of mold toxins are still being studied.
Studies commissioned by the OSBI warned the mold could make employees sick. A report issued to the agency in January of 2015, just months before Shirley died, pointed specifically to the hazards mold exposure presented to cancer patients.
There are 12 offices plus two laboratories in the Lawton field office, the building was also where field agents who office from their homes were officially assigned.
An official OSBI memo from Lawton special agent in charge Richard Goss in 2014 indicates 7 of 48 employees who worked in the building developed cancer.
Also in a separate 2014 memo, Criminalistics Division Director Andrea Swiech referenced an email she sent to OSBI administration in 2007 in which she informed them doctors diagnosed one of her Lawton lab employees with a bacterial infection caused by mold.
In a written response to our inquiry into the problems in Lawton, the OSBI said the problems with mold only began in 2007 at which point the agency commissioned a study about the issue.
However, internal memos exchanged between supervisors and the OSBI administration show that is not true.
An assessment of the mold issues sent to agency director Stan Florence by the Richard Goss in 2014 indicates water leaks were first spotted in 2002. In 2002, the OSBI was just leasing the building. The agency went on to get legislative approval to purchase it two years later.
In his 2014 memo about the building’s history with mold problem to Director Florence, Goss notes mold was identified in the pre-purchase inspection of the building. That mold was found years before 2007 as the agency claims.
In her 2014 memo, Division Director Swiech informed Director Florence that "the Lawton lab has had mold issues well before 2007.”
When the commissioners that oversee the OSBI requested information about the mold situation in 2016, Director Florence provided them with a summary that indicate the problem was only identified in 2007. He wrote that email two years after receiving emails and memos informing him otherwise.
Director Florence told commissioners the agency complied with recommendations for remediation made in the 2007 study conducted by the University Of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health.
According to internal emails and memos obtained through open records requests to the some employees were concerned about how completely those recommendations were followed.
The 2007 study recommended replacing all the mold-infested surfaces.
“Up to the bottom of the windows or so,” Darrell recalled of the remediation work from his visits to the building during the reconstruction, “I don't know of any place in there where they took anything out floor to ceiling.”
In response to questions about the extent of the remediation, the OSBI said in a written statement, “All studies made recommendations on remediation solutions with no recommendations to remove employees. In these instances, the OSBI hired contractors to provide remediation services.”
However, the OSBI’s own records do not support the claim that contractors were solely responsible for completing the remediation recommendations.
According to the 2014 memo by Andrea Sweich, the remediation was supposed to have been overseen by agency administrators including, then division director and current deputy director, Charlie Curtis.
Sweich wrote Curtis and other administrators “were involved in reviewing the remediation report and determining which actions would be taken/completed at the Lawton facility.”
Sweich wrote she was not involved in determining which recommendations were ignored.
In all the remediation work cost the agency $154,431, which was almost a third of the building’s $477,212.30 purchase price.
A memo from Director Florence indicated that it was known recommendations were not followed, but unknown who made the decision not to follow them. Key to complaints, Florence wrote, was the failure to install a dehumidifier in the Lawton building and failing to remove all the mold-affected surfaces.
“I was always under the impression it was to placate people it was not to take care of the problem,” Darrell said of the feelings of his wife and other employees he interacted with during the remediation and aftermath.
In his 2016 email to commissioners, Director Florence told the commissioners that the mold did not return to Lawton until 2014.
Again though, the OSBI’s own internal records contradict this statement.
A timeline written by agent-in-charge Goss to Director Florence in 2014 indicate mold began to appear in 2008, exactly six months from the day that employees moved back into the building following the supposed completion of the 2007 remediation suggestion.
Darrell said after his wife became sick, he told the agency he would use his experience working in real estate for the city of Lawton to help find a new home for the lab.
“That's why I told all of the employees I would do whatever I could for them because I don't want anyone else to go through what I've gone through.”
The OSBIi's written response to FOX 25 says the building was never following any of the three studies commissioned since 2007 because none of those studies recommended closing the facility.
“In early 2015, an engineering firm was hired to conduct a structural facilities assessment in order to attempt to identify additional information about the structure, to determine the actual cause of the moisture. Those findings indicated the building’s elevation was too low, thus contributing to the moisture issues,” the OSBI wrote.
It was not until September of 2016 that all employees were officially moved out of the building. The move was more than a year and a half after the final mold study which concluded with a two page warning about the health risks associated with being around mold on a daily basis.
“In early 2015 a request from the OSBI was forwarded to OMES to secure alternate facility space. To date, no space has been identified or approved by OMES,” the OSBI wrote to FOX 25.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services, or OMES, told FOX it is not their responsibility to find new space for the OSBI. Part of the issue is the OSBI is still paying back the bonds that were used to purchase the Lawton building. Those bonds were taken out when the agency was already aware the building had water leaks and potential mold contamination.
“We’re working with OSBI on options to figure out where they could relocate. There have been two recent cases where we’ve advised against leasing options, once because of the costs and once because of contractual demands. OMES is happy to work with OSBI on relocation efforts and assist where we can, but ultimately it’s up to the agency if, when and where they want to relocate,” wrote OMES spokesman Michael Baker.
“In September 2016, the last employees moved from the facility, ending any daily occupancy,” the OSBI wrote to FOX 25. “From time to time, employees may yet enter the facility for short durations only when necessary, and will continue to do so until new work space is located by OMES.”
However, OSBI employees tell FOX 25 the building is still being used to conduct polygraph examinations and other interrogations. This type of occupancy would put unsuspecting members of the public, as well as agents, in contact with mold that could be producing toxins.