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The State

Fired Columbia police lab chemist sues city for $3 million

By Clif LeBlanc

A fired Columbia police chemist who was blamed this summer for mishandling seized drug evidence sued the city Monday for at least $3 million.

Brenda Toomer-Frazier’s suit alleges racial discrimination, that she was not given the tools to do her job and that a Richland County Sheriff’s Department evaluation, which found her and the lab to be inadequate, was done by someone who had a conflict of interest.

The 11-page suit was filed in Richland County by Toomer-Frazier’s attorney, Glenn Walters of Orangeburg. The document was delivered to City Hall about 2:10 p.m., a city spokeswoman said.

Toomer-Frazier, who is African-American, also contends she was pressured into resigning her job Sept. 12 by Chief Skip Holbrook’s threat to fire her if she did not quit.

Holbrook said he will not respond to the allegations while the case is being litigated. The ex-chemist is seeking a jury trial.

Efforts to reach Walters on Monday were unsuccessful.

Toomer-Frazier handled about 750 cases during her two years and nine months as a chemist for the police department. Nearly 195 of those are being re-examined by the sheriff’s department, largely to double-check whether the weights Toomer-Frazier had assigned the drugs are correct.

Holbrook said his department has received results on about 30 cases and no mistakes were found. He said he does not know when the rest of the analyses will be completed.

Sheriff Leon Lott said his lab has completed its assessment of about half the cases the 5th Circuit prosecutor’s office asked be given priority because the defendants are awaiting trials.

“There’s another 200-plus cases that have already been through court that the solicitor wants us to review and verify that they were correct,” Lott said. “We’re getting it done as soon as possible,” he said of the remaining cases.

The State Law Enforcement Division has been analyzing Columbia drug cases at no charge until city leaders decide whether to reopen a lab at the department. Council recently leased a warehouse that has enough space to accommodate a lab should council decide to reopen one, Holbrook said at the time.

The lawsuit contends that Toomer-Frazier’s white predecessors were allowed to select their own peer review teams. Hers was selected by police department managers and included a Lexington County chemist who “did not want to work with” Toomer-Frazier, she said.

As the lone Columbia Police Department chemist during the final months of her employment, the lack of peer reviews further raised questions about the quality of her work. Holbrook had said previously that a chemist who was there before Toomer-Frazier left because of on-the-job conflicts with Toomer-Frazier.

“(The) city denied (Toomer-Frazier) fringe benefits/perks that it normally provided to white drug forensic drug chemists,” the suit states. It lists as examples that she says were different for white predecessors:

•  She was not provided enough help to properly operate the lab.
•  She was denied “SLED-required training ... provided other similarly situated white drug chemists.”
•  Her certification as a police officer was withdrawn.
•  She was denied a car and a mobile phone until January 2014.
•  She was removed from the state’s police retirement system.
•  Her supervisors were spared resignation unlike former Maj. Isa Greene, an African-
American woman who, according to the suit, “was forced to resign because of the actions or inactions of her subordinates.”

A critical analysis of the police lab done by Demi Garvin, chief of the sheriff’s department lab, at Holbrook’s request spotlighted troubles in the city lab.

Toomer-Frazier alleges that Garvin had a professional conflict of interest because she has a stake in a private company, Forensic Science Network LLC, which stood to make money evaluating drug cases if the police lab was closed.

“She was doing the analysis for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department – not a private company,” Lott said. “Demi Garvin is probably one of the most respected forensic scientists, not only in this state, but across the United States,” he said.

Lott said he does not know if Garvin has such a private affiliation. “If she did, I don’t have a problem with it, anyway.”

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