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Polygraph world’s close ties spark accusations of favoritism

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Saturday, May 25, 2013, at 10:46 p.m.

— When polygrapher Walt Goodson began moonlighting for a private company, he didn’t think the law enforcement agency he worked for would care. After all, his supervisor at the Texas Department of Public Safety had worked for his company’s competitor and had approved his outside job.

But after Texas investigators found his relationship with the polygraph manufacturer to be improper partly because of his involvement in a bid, Goodson agreed it looked bad, even describing some of the company’s arrangements as “kickbacks.”

“It’s the perception of the way everybody else sees it . . . ,” he told a Texas Department of Public Safety investigator in 2008. “It stinks.”

Public employees are supposed to avoid conflicts of interest such as Goodson’s because they could give a company an unfair advantage over competitors or create a greater expense for the public agency that’s buying a product. Even so, Goodson is one of 14 current or former law enforcement officers across the country who’ve been described by Lafayette Instrument Co. Inc. as dealers over the last six years, McClatchy has found. The officers’ listed sales territories have covered 22 states.

Lafayette, meanwhile, has become a leading manufacturer of polygraphs used by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies for employment screening, sex offender compliance and criminal investigations.

The Indiana-based company also has fostered strong ties with U.S. and international schools that train government polygraphers and with the professional organization that in turn certifies those polygraph schools. Goodson, for instance, no longer is listed as a dealer, but he now heads the ethics committee of the American Polygraph Association. Six other Lafayette dealers or consultants are listed as holding positions with either that organization or the American Association of Police Polygraphists. Seven directors of U.S. polygraph schools are listed as Lafayette representatives.

Their polygraphs also are becoming more popular abroad. In 2010, the State Department awarded the company a noncompetitive bid worth almost $2.4 million for 318 machines to be used by Mexico for its U.S-funded anti-corruption efforts. Lafayette lists dealers who head international polygraph schools, including one in Mexico.

Such relationships raise questions about the profession’s ability to assess criticism of the polygraphs. Lafayette manufactures the LX4000, which has been described as having a technical problem that can lead to inaccurate sweat measurements that may alter the outcome of a polygraph test, McClatchy has found. The problem can occur in other machines that use the same technology, but it hasn’t been thoroughly or independently studied.

Lafayette and the American Polygraph Association dismissed the problem as minor to McClatchy.

However, when probation officials with the state of Washington called the American Polygraph Association after hearing of the problem from McClatchy, an association official told them it wasn’t aware of any issue related to the LX4000, according to a state official. Washington state uses it to polygraph sex offenders to check for compliance with probation.

Two polygraphers who often are described as experts on such matters also are tied to Lafayette. Raymond Nelson is a Lafayette consultant who oversees the American Polygraph Association’s research committee. Mark Handler, who’s co-authored a paper on sweat measurements, is a dealer. Both men helped craft Lafayette’s recent response to McClatchy’s questions about the LX4000, which accused McClatchy of exaggerating the problem and working on behalf of a competitor. Handler doesn’t has a doctorate in the field that studies polygraph. Nelson declined to say what his educational background is.

When asked about the dealership arrangement, Handler, a former Montgomery County, Texas, sheriff’s employee, said, “It’s how it works.” However, he agreed that direct involvement in bids would be inappropriate. While Handler was a county employee, he received a small commission from Lafayette on the company’s sales to the county. After McClatchy asked about it, he said he’d repaid $181.92 to Lafayette. “This should not have happened and I thank you for finding the error,” he said.

Lafayette’s president, Terry Echard, said, “Using representatives to expand our sales network is a standard business practice.”

“Each representative is responsible for understanding and complying with their respective employer’s policies regarding potential conflicts of interest,” he said.

Lafayette isn’t the only manufacturer to form close ties with law enforcement officials. Goodson’s former boss who once represented Lafayette’s competitor, Axciton Systems, is on the American Polygraph Association’s board and oversees polygraph tests for violent sex offenders in Texas. Most, if not all, of his contracted polygraphers use Axciton, he told McClatchy.

William Iacono, a University of Minnesota psychology professor who’s researched polygraph and is known as a leading critic of its use, said organizations such as the American Polygraph Association had “an ethical responsibility to be self-policing.”

“If there’s this unhealthy marriage between the schools and the APA and the manufacturers of the instruments so they are all hush-hush about the problems, then no one is served well by that.”

Barry Cushman, the association’s president, said his group’s opinion on the LX4000’s reliability was based on science, not on the influence of any manufacturer. He said there was no evidence that the measurement differences would affect accuracy.

Polygraph testing, already questioned by scientists as unreliable, lacks independent testing of the measurements of sweat, blood pressure and breathing that polygraphers rely on to determine whether someone is lying. When asked why they favor one manufacturer over another, polygraphers often cite their own personal preferences or the schools they attended.

“There are Lafayette schools. There’s been Axciton schools,” Goodson told an investigator. “There’s schools across the country where the director is the rep, and that’s how they make part of their money.”

Recently, another polygraph manufacturer, Stoelting Co., bought a polygraph training school. It refused to respond to McClatchy’s questions. The fourth main manufacturer, Limestone Technologies Inc., pays two or three school directors a commission on sales, said company President James Brown. However, Limestone doesn’t pay any public employees, he said.

“Government employees already have full-time employment,” said Brown, who’s based in Canada.

Lafayette wouldn’t respond to McClatchy’s questions about how much it pays dealers or schools, although Goodson’s contract with the company shows it also can include significant discounts for equipment.

At least five of the current and former law enforcement officers whom Lafayette identified as dealers either were involved in some way in their agencies’ decisions to buy Lafayette’s equipment or sold equipment to their agencies, they or their agencies acknowledged. Their participation ranged from providing information needed for a bid to recommending a purchase to involving themselves directly in a bid process.

Two other dealers, including Handler, said they’d bought their own Lafayette machines for public testing and two said they’d left their law enforcement agencies before becoming dealers. One officer said he didn’t know he was listed. The remaining four didn’t return calls or refused to respond to questions attempting to clarify their relationships.

“I am familiar with what you’re doing. That’s been the subject of some discussion,” John Pickup, a former Utah County Sheriff’s Office polygrapher, told a McClatchy reporter, adding, “I wouldn’t care to speak to you.” He then hung up.

“You’re getting into personal (information),” Toby McSwain, a captain with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina, said in response to a reporter’s questions about how much he was paid. “It’s not a fair question.”

The hundreds of documents that detail the Goodson investigation demonstrate the public-interest concerns raised by such relationships. According to the Texas documents McClatchy obtained through a public records request, Goodson said Handler had recruited him, saying it was “free money.”

“You don’t do anything,” Goodson recalled his friend saying. “You’re a sales rep on paper but you don’t sell anything.”

Goodson said he didn’t sell any polygraphs for Lafayette but he nonetheless received a check in the mail from the company for more than $1,100, which was supposed to represent a 2 percent sales commission. Later, he received more than $700, according to the state records.

“I guess I’m working for them,” he recalled telling his wife.

Goodson, who said he’d told Lafayette he didn’t want a commission from sales to his agency, told investigators he didn’t think it was wrong. His boss, Mike Gougler, and a fellow polygrapher, Sabino Martinez, were representatives of Axciton.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything much different than a lot of other members of this department are doing,” he told the investigator.

Until then, Texas-based Axciton had been the only supplier of polygraphs to his agency. According to state records, Gougler had been a dealer since at least 1997.“I figured as long as Mike Gougler is there . . . we were going to buy Axciton,” Goodson said to the investigator.But in 2007, Lafayette tried to break into the market with an aggressive bid, he said. By then, Lafayette had hired Goodson as a dealer, and he said a Lafayette representative had asked him: “What do you think we ought to bid?” He said he’d responded that he couldn’t say, but he acknowledged working on the bid requirements with Gougler.

Lafayette won the bid and sold 11 polygraphs to the department for almost $22,000.

Later, the company wasn’t so lucky. Another competitor, Stoelting Co., was the lowest bidder for the sale of 14 polygraphs for almost $24,000. Goodson said he and Gougler were shocked by the win of the competitor whose polygraphs he’d heard were “unreliable.” Both of them decided to cancel the bid, and they came up with a long list of reasons together, he said. Investigators later found that many of them were either inaccurate or misleading.

“Did we inappropriately, without enough justification, cancel the bid?” a Texas investigator told Goodson. “I would say it kind of looks that way.”

Goodson didn’t return calls but his department said in a statement to McClatchy that investigators had found no criminal wrongdoing in his case.

“It was determined by his chain of command that he did not intentionally violate department policy,” the statement said.

Goodson, who now oversees the Texas Department of Public Safety’s polygraph units, received three days of unpaid leave as punishment.

In a memo, Thomas Ruocco, the chief of the department’s criminal law enforcement division, called the allegation against Gougler “worse” than the one against Goodson because Axciton was said to have secured business through a noncompetitive bid, adding that it “borders on criminal.”

Investigators, meanwhile, said Texas’ “weak” conflict of interest laws prevented them from considering criminal prosecutions of Gougler or Goodson.

Gougler, who retired in 2008 a month before the investigation began, is now a deputy director of oversight for the Texas Racing Commission. He told a McClatchy reporter that he hadn’t worked for Axciton for years. He hung up when he was asked whether he’d been involved in the state’s bid process.

Polygraphers in other states who are dealers said they didn’t see any problem with their own arrangements.

Vince Hernandez of the Nebraska State Patrol, who’s been listed as a dealer since at least 2009, said he “gave quotes” to his employer before the agency purchased its second round of Lafayette polygraphs.

“They decided as to whether or not to take that quote and buy equipment through Lafayette,” he said.

His agency now has 15 Lafayette polygraphs. When he was asked whether he got a sales commission, he said: “I would have gotten it, but it would have been a very minimal amount.”

“Essentially, what I would do would give them whatever the dealer cost was,” he added.

McSwain, of the Beaufort County sheriff’s department, acknowledged to McClatchy that he’d recommended that his employer buy Lafayette equipment. When asked about the potential conflict of interest, he said he wasn’t directly involved in the purchases. Beaufort County has been a customer of Lafayette since 2000, before McSwain became a dealer, and it owns three of the company’s polygraphs.

“It’s not a business that you can retire early on,” McSwain said. “At least for me.”

Beaufort County Attorney Josh Gruber said McSwain wasn’t directly involved in the competitive bids nor did he collect sales commission on those purchases. As a result, state law wouldn’t consider his relationship a conflict of interest, because the employee must have a “direct benefit” from the purchase, he said. McSwain was paid a commission by Lafayette for other sales in South Carolina and North Carolina and he filed the proper disclosure with his superiors, Gruber said.

Gruber added that he wouldn’t be concerned if McSwain had recommended that the county buy polygraphs from Lafayette. “We would rely on him because of his history and background in the field,” he said.

Darryl DeBow, a former Loudoun County, Va., sheriff’s department polygrapher who’s now a Lafayette dealer who heads a school in the state, said he’d prepared paperwork with information about various companies for a bid while he was with the department. DeBow, however, denied having much influence.

“You don’t really weigh in that damn much,” he said. “It’s `Here’s the pros of each one of them.’ Lafayette had the best pros.”He said he didn’t collect a sales commission on his former employer’s purchase of Lafayette’s polygraphs, but that he had for other sales in Virginia since the late 1990s. He declined to say how much.

With other dealers, it was difficult to discern their involvement in public business. Although no conflict of interest would be created by paying a sales commission to a private polygraph school, one of them received funding from Kentucky to train polygraphers from the state, a spokesman with the Kentucky State Police said. The director of that school, Pam Shaw, is listed as a Lafayette dealer and as the chairman of the American Polygraph Association’s board. She didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Pickup retired from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office in 2008, but he’s been on the dealer list since at least 2007. The sheriff’s office said that after Pickup retired, it contracted with his company to do the polygraph testing through a competitive bid.

“I am not sure how much input Mr. Pickup had in purchasing equipment from Lafayette, but I am sure he had some due to being one of our examiners,” sheriff’s spokesman Matthew Higley said. “As far as I can tell, the sheriff’s office purchased equipment directly from Lafayette, not through Mr. Pickup, so we do not believe that there was any conflict of interest whatsoever.”

Retired San Diego Police Department polygrapher Paul Redden didn’t return McClatchy’s calls. He’s been listed as a dealer since at least 2007 and last year was identified as a salesman in at least one of San Diego’s purchases from Lafayette. The police department refused to answer questions about Redden, including when he’d worked there or whether he now works as a contractor. San Diego has been buying Lafayette polygraphs at least since 2002, when it awarded a noncompetitive bid to the company, according to city records obtained under California’s open records laws.

George Louk, who’s been listed as a dealer since at least 2007, retired last year from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department after working there since 1988. He didn’t return calls but his former department, which owns three Lafayette machines, said he wasn’t responsible for the purchase of its Lafayette polygraphs.

The Louisiana State Police and the state’s Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office bought Lafayette polygraphs after Woody Overton joined their agencies. Goodson told investigators that Overton claimed to be a dealer several years ago. But Overton told McClatchy he didn’t know he was listed as a dealer until McClatchy called him:“I never made a penny from them.”

A parish sheriff’s spokeswoman said her agency bought a Lafayette polygraph at the recommendation of instructors at the Texas Department of Public Safety polygraph school. Goodson was an instructor there at the time and Overton attended the school.

Louisiana State Police spokesman Doug Cain said his agency bought it for Overton because that was the polygraph he was trained to use.

“We followed all the proper procedures for purchasing,” he said. “And we have no reason to believe that he has sold a single Lafayette machine while employed with our state.”

Sabino Martinez, Goodson’s former colleague in Texas, said he’d made under $500 a polygraph as a salesman for Axciton, but he described it as less than half of what Lafayette pays its polygraph schools in commission.

However, he said he didn’t profit from his relationship with Axciton while a Texas employee.

“Axciton gave me a kick in the butt,” Martinez said. “I didn’t make any money . . . although there were a couple of times I thought I would.”

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