ELYRIA — Emmanuel de Leon will remain on the job for at least 30 days after the Lorain County Forensics Laboratory ceases operation on Friday, the county commissioners decided in a split vote Wednesday.
De Leon is the director of both the Forensics Lab, where probationers are given drug tests, and the county’s Crime Lab, where drug and fingerprint evidence gathered by police is tested. De Leon resigned as chief deputy of the county’s Adult Probation Department earlier this month.
Commissioner Tom Williams was the lone vote against leaving de Leon in charge of the Crime Lab. He said he couldn’t justify keeping de Leon, who is the only person working for the county with the qualifications to certify lab results, because of the newly launched investigation into missing evidence at the Probation Department.
Williams said he favored having either the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s crime lab or the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office temporarily handle the testing. Both of those moves had been under consideration by the commissioners, but were rejected as either too slow in the case of BCI or too expensive in the case of Cuyahoga County.
Williams also voted against putting a 0.08-mill property tax levy on the May ballot to help fund the Crime Lab. The measure will generate $495,759 annually if approved.
The Forensics Lab and Crime Lab share resources, staff and space in the basement of the old Lorain County Courthouse, but the commissioners have said without the financial support of the county’s General Division judges, who oversee the Forensics Lab, the Crime Lab won’t have the money to continue operating.
Williams said he believes the Crime Lab levy is necessary — and had voted in favor of it a week ago — but he thinks the controversy surrounding the labs and Probation Department will make it difficult to win support from voters.
“I believe there are too many unanswered questions right now,” he said. “With the ongoing investigation, I believe we should wait before asking voters to approve a levy.”
Commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski said they have faith that enough of the investigation will be completed within a month that they will have the information they need to explain the issue to voters and voted to go forward with the levy in May.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will described the Crime Lab as essential to law enforcement in the county and added that there’s nothing to suggest that the work being done there has been compromised.
“We have not seen a problem with the Crime Lab,” Will said.
An inspection report from the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy in December indicated there were security and accountability issues at the lab, but Will said it’s not clear to him if the report was dealing with the Crime Lab, the Forensics Lab or both.
Will and other county officials acknowledged Wednesday that the situation is somewhat confusing because the Crime Lab, Forensics Lab and Probation Department are so interconnected.
De Leon was placed on paid leave Nov. 21 after a Ziploc bag of prescription medication that General Division Administrative Judge James Burge ordered destroyed couldn’t be accounted for. De Leon has continued to certify lab results, but has not been allowed to return to the labs.
Court Administrator Tim Lubbe has said that de Leon twice denied knowing where the drugs were before coming in from vacation and producing the pills. De Leon had planned to use the medication as a standard for calibrating lab equipment, something he believed would save the county money, Lubbe has said.
Two guns and a police scanner that had been seized by probation officers were later discovered to be missing after being turned over to de Leon, according to a letter scheduling a disciplinary hearing sent to de Leon earlier this month. De Leon’s resignation as chief deputy probation officer led to the cancellation of the hearing and marked the end of the internal investigation, Lubbe has said.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, de Leon’s attorney, has said his client’s resignation had nothing to do with the allegations against him, but was rather motivated by his layoff from the Forensics Lab and not having a job left to protect at the Probation Department.
Rosenbaum also has said de Leon and other workers can’t be held accountable for the guns, scanner or other missing evidence because of how the Probation Department’s evidence room was operated and numerous break-ins at the building. Court officials have acknowledged that squatters had taken up residence in the building late last year.
The General Division judges last year ordered probation officers to stop seizing property from those they were supervising. Burge has said that probation officers should have been calling police rather than seizing evidence of suspected crimes themselves.
Once the practice of probation officers seizing evidence ended, the Probation Department began the process of destroying years of accumulated evidence and that in turn led to the revelation that items were missing.
Will and Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh also rejected a suggestion by Williams that they bring in an outside law enforcement agency to conduct the investigation. Williams said he was concerned that their close working relationship with de Leon, the Crime Lab and the Probation Department could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
Kalo and Kokoski both said they didn’t think it would be a problem and Cavanaugh said deputies have investigated their own in the past without problems.
“I don’t see any type of conflict with this,” he said.