Bad grades, lapses in hiring process doomed Austin’s crime lab leader


Highlights

Two months after he was hired with a salary of $111,000, Scott Milne is being paid to stay home.

Poor grades from Milne’s college days could have been used in court to challenge lab test results.

Austin police tweaked hiring policies for civilian employees as a result of the lapses in hiring Milne.

When Austin police embarked on hiring a new chief forensics officer a few months ago, officials said they wanted a top-flight scientist to resurrect their shuttered DNA lab and restore confidence in its work.

Their pick was Scott Milne, who has worked in both law enforcement and private forensics labs in Arizona and Colorado, for the $111,000 position.

Today, Milne is being paid to stay home.

No one — not human resources staff, not an interview panel, not department brass — noticed or flagged a less-than-stellar college transcript Milne gave them with his application. Had they done so, they would have seen that Milne’s academic history was pockmarked with failing grades, including many courses directly related to his career, according to records obtained by the American-Statesman.

He failed a class called analytic methods in forensic science, for instance. He passed it a year later with a D.

A few weeks after Milne moved to Austin in November, others in the criminal justice system got a copy of his college record and began questioning his hiring. Interim Police Chief Brian Manley, who had interviewed Milne himself, then conceded that Milne wasn’t suited for the job.

How the department handled filling that key role — even after the lab had come under intense scrutiny — is the latest question about how well the Austin Police Department has managed the facility and comes as officials in both county and city government weigh stripping it from police oversight.

“Mr. Milne provided us the information we asked for,” Manley told the Statesman last week. “However, the vetting process only looked at the fact that he had a degree. … The board did not review the backup material, but only confirmed that he had the degree.”

Law enforcement officials said they were concerned that his academic record could have been used to challenge lab results in court.

Milne was chosen based on recommendations from a hiring panel, say former Police Chief Art Acevedo and Manley, who added that the department has since made changes in its hiring process for civilian staffers.

He has placed Milne on administrative leave while police officials decide what to do next. Milne didn’t return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

Manley said Milne’s current job status is largely due to a lack of available work for him, not on his academic background alone.

At a December news conference announcing that the department would no longer try to get the lab operational, Manley said he felt that Milne hadn’t performed “at the academic level that I would want to see in someone who’s going to run the crime lab functions that remain open for our community.”

But in the interview with the Statesman, Manley added that “he came here for a job that unfortunately we don’t need him here for. That was unknown when we hired him, and he knew he was coming to a lab that faced some serious challenges.”

“But I’m not pleased with a process that resulted in us bringing an individual to our department that we don’t have a need for,” Manley said.

Top candidate dropped out

Officials abruptly ended operations in the DNA lab in June when a state audit said scientists were improperly analyzing samples — concerns that some fear might have resulted in wrongful convictions or could cause guilty defendants to walk free because of questionable results on key forensic evidence.

The DNA lab remains closed indefinitely, though blood and fingerprints are still analyzed by the department’s forensics unit.

As part of the effort to get the DNA lab operational again, officials decided to hire a new chief forensics officer to replace another civilian, Edward Harris, who had retired in March.

The department followed its typical process for hiring civilian employees.

Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said the department’s advertisement on the city’s website resulted in six applicants, and the department created a special group to interview them.

The four-person hiring panel included two employees of the lab, even though the Texas Forensic Science Commission had said in its June audit that some lab staff had been reluctant to adapt to universally accepted methods of DNA analysis. The other members of the panel were a sworn police manager and a representative who officials said is a national expert in forensics.

Gay said the panel ranked the candidates but that the top contender withdrew.

Manley said that he and Acevedo met Milne, and that afterward, the city offered him the job. Manley said he had no concerns about the panel’s recommendation at the time.

“He was presented to us as their selection, and so after we met him, we didn’t tell them not to move forward,” he said.

Acevedo, who is now Houston’s police chief, told the Statesman, “I relied on the recommendations of the folks who were part of a selection process.”

Less than two months later, Manley and others decided that they would end efforts to get the facility running again. The final blow came after the Texas Department of Public Safety, which had been helping train DNA analysts, told Austin police in mid-December that it had lost confidence in four of those six employees.

Manley has since altered the hiring process for civilians to ensure that a human resources official is part of the hiring panel, and that person is tasked with thoroughly reviewing all information applicants provide.

20-year-old transcripts

The check box on Milne’s job application indicating he had obtained a degree didn’t show his checkered academic career at two universities where he attended classes over eight years to earn a bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry. Copies of his academic transcript obtained under the Texas Public Information Act showed several semesters in which Milne failed numerous courses.

C’s in courses such as forensic serology, D’s in classes like forensic microscopic analysis and F’s in courses including analytic methods in forensic science dot Milne’s records from Eastern Kentucky University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry in 1996.

Before that, Milne attended the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada, for six semesters from 1988 through 1991. He was forced to withdraw at one point for a semester after he failed to earn credits in six of seven courses taken, his transcript showed.

But a pedestrian academic performance didn’t keep Milne from entering the field of forensics.

In 1998, the Arizona Department of Public Safety hired him to work in its DNA lab in Phoenix. He stayed for 13 years and was promoted to a supervisor position.

He then worked at the Colorado Springs Police Department as a lab manager for two years before starting a private lab, his application showed. He called the business Forensic Testing Solutions and set up shop in a complex of small, red-brick offices in Lexington, Ky.

It appears Milne ran the business for a little over a year before shutting it down. However, his application states he only was in operation for two months.

He returned to the Arizona Department of Public Safety in early 2015, earning less pay than he had in his manager job in Colorado Springs. There, he performed scientific analysis and was a “DNA training mentor.”

The Statesman is seeking performance records from Milne’s past employers.

In July, Milne contacted Austin police’s laboratory director indicating his interest in the position.

Over the course of his career, Milne attended dozens of conferences and training sessions, including one on “DNA Mixture Interpretation” in February 2016 regarding a Texas Department of Public Safety case. He indicated in his curriculum vitae that he testified in 57 times in federal, state and appellate courts as well as grand jury hearings.

Manley said the city is now looking into whether it can place Milne in another city job by looking at currently available positions to determine whether he is qualified or interested in those positions.



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