Questions surround methods, credentials of drug screener
Family Court relies on Robert Bennett's findings to decide crucial issues of custody and divorce
His words can ruin reputations, wrest children from their parents and cost people their jobs.
Robert Bennett built this power during the past 15 years by persuading Lowcountry judges, lawyers and business people that he is the pre-eminent local authority on drug testing.
He has wowed courtrooms and clients with his ability to detect minuscule traces of drugs in hair and urine, catch cheaters who try to beat the tests and spot substance abusers by eyeing their appearance and mannerisms. These skills helped Bennett land work as the primary drug screener for Charleston County's Family Court.
Yet Bennett's credentials, methods and the reliability of his findings are suspect or controversial, an investigation by The Post and Courier shows. The investigation also reveals how the drug-testing industry in South Carolina operates without state oversight even as its findings influence everything from athletics to job applications. The state has no requirements that drug screeners have minimum skills and no standards to ensure the reliability of screeners' results.
Bennett is not licensed or certified in any discipline for which he claims expertise. Yet he bills himself as a forensic toxicologist, a medical review officer, a criminal forensics expert and an addictionologist with multiple medical degrees. He can do this because the state doesn't regulate these specialties. He does have a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences, but his training in other fields is mostly self-taught from reading journals and books.
Bennett has cornered much of the Family Court business by insisting the lab tests he orders are more discerning, conducted at the 'lowest detection levels' for drug use. But some experts contend that the approach he favors runs the risk of implicating innocent people.
Bennett said he has lost count of how many cases he has worked for the courts, but he estimated that the number reached into the thousands.
Of the four Family Court judges in Charleston County, only Judge Jocelyn Cate returned calls from The Post and Courier inquiring about Bennett. She confirmed that Bennett has done work for the courts but declined to discuss his credentials, performance or any aspect of his relation to the Family Court.
Hanging in the balance are people like Karen Ferguson of Mount Pleasant, who temporarily lost custody of her 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son last year after tests conducted by Bennett pointed to her being a drunk. Ferguson insisted she hadn't touched any alcohol. But she didn't get her kids back until three months later, after a physician concluded that Ferguson's anemia had been throwing off the test results.
'It was unbelievable, like some surreal happening,' says Ferguson, a landscape architect and vice president of the parent-teacher organization at her children's school. 'There was no way I could not pass that test. I hadn't had a single drop of alcohol in months.'
Ferguson reached a settlement with her ex-husband in February to share custody of their children, but not before she spent thousands of dollars on legal and medical fees to contest Bennett's findings.
'What about people who don't have the money? What happens to them?' she asks. 'People are losing their kids for no reason because of him.'
Demi Garvin, a certified forensic toxicologist who runs the Richland County Sheriff's Office crime lab, says the problem lies in the state's lack of controls, which allows virtually anyone to open up shop and declare himself an expert.
'Any time you have some Tom, Dick or Harry posing as an expert and interpreting results, you have someone holding a stick of dynamite,' she says.
That point was driven home in January when the FBI charged Neal Lamar Holmes with taking bribes to falsify drug test results while working for Alternatives Life Improvement Center in North Charleston. Holmes, 41, had been hired to perform drug tests on criminal defendants despite past convictions for shoplifting and check fraud.
Bennett's company, American Drug Testing, used the occasion of Holmes' arrest to circulate a newsletter trumpeting its own 'impeccable integrity.'
Dr. James Connolly, a retired surgeon who is certified through the American Association of Medical Review Officers, says the worst thing is that judges depend on Bennett's findings to make decisions that affect children's lives. Connolly, who works for Atlantic Occupational Health in North Charleston, says Bennett's credentials don't hold up to scrutiny.
'He is blowing a horn that doesn't exist,' he says. 'He is selling himself as an expert, but I'm not seeing any expert there.'
Man of many titles
Bennett, 48, is trim with thinning brown hair. He speaks in calm, measured tones suited to a man who has spent considerable time fielding questions from the witness stand. He rarely allows his displeasure to show, preferring to punctuate his answers with a knowing smile that curls below his neatly trimmed mustache.
He works out of a spartan office on Carriage Lane in West Ashley, his fifth location in the past four years. For much of that time, he has been operating in Charleston without a business license. Bennett applied for a business license in March after city inspectors, responding to inquiries by The Post and Courier, visited his office and instructed him to do so. He finally received a business license, for 'Dr. Bennett,' on July 11, city officials say.
Though his operation is small, it is not without influence. While most of the large court systems in South Carolina spread their business among a variety of drug screening firms, Bennett has all but cornered the market in the greater Charleston area's family courts.
American Drug Testing is one of about eight businesses in the Charleston area that offer drug testing, but Bennett says his operation is the most qualified to handle court-related work. He says he has evaluated more than 27,000 drug tests since forming his company in 1991. Along the way, he has testified in dozens of Family Court cases in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
His presence in Family Court has become so routine that Bennett drew up an official court order form that he distributed to the judges to make it easier for them to send clients his way. The form, which bears Bennett's copyright, advises people that they face possible jail time or fines if they refuse to comply with the court-ordered testing with his company.
During several hours of interviews with The Post and Courier, Bennett vigorously defended his business, insisting that his background provides him with a body of expertise that is beyond reproach.
Bennett says he has never tried to mislead anyone with his credentials. He says it's not his fault if people jump to wrong conclusions.
Bennett refers to himself as 'doctor,' as some Ph.D.-holders do. But he also states on his resume and in promotional materials for his company that he holds multiple medical degrees and serves as medical director of Medical-Legal Services Independent Laboratories, an offshoot business he formed to handle court-related drug and DNA testing.
Bennett says he refers to his pharmacy diplomas as medical degrees because he received them from the Medical University of South Carolina. 'Now, if someone hears or refers to me as Dr. Bennett and assumes that I am an M.D., that's their false assumption,' he says.
Bennett also sees nothing misleading about marketing his services under the banner of Medical-Legal Services Independent Laboratories, not mentioning in his literature that he sends most samples to outside labs just as anyone else could. Some of his competitors do the same, but most note that fact in their final paperwork. Until last year, Bennett's lab reports stated that all tests were performed in 'our U.S. Government certified laboratory.' He changed the language to 'a U.S. Government certified laboratory' not long after two Charleston attorneys grilled him about the practice in a deposition for a child custody case.
'When I say to people, ‘We'll run it in our lab and see what we get,' … if they assume it's actually my physical lab, I apologize for that,' Bennett says. 'It's a misconception they've made, not one I've tried to project.'
Bennett sees nothing wrong with billing himself as a registered pharmacist, though his license lapsed seven years ago and he would have to pass a state examination to be reinstated. He says he still can use the title and only would need a license if he planned to fill prescriptions.
Jim Knight, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, says the law is clear that 'he can't call himself a pharmacist in South Carolina if he doesn't have a license.'
Over the years, Bennett also has adopted titles such as forensic toxicologist, medical review officer and addictionologist. Bennett is not certified, sanctioned or recognized by any official or professional body to perform these duties. Multiple organizations offer certifications in all of these disciplines, but Bennett says he doesn't see where he needs anyone's blessing to perform work he has been doing his entire career. He says he adopted the title of addictionologist because it accurately describes what he does.
In his promotional literature, Bennett also professes expertise in such wide-ranging topics as insect bites, solvent exposure, DNA mapping, crime scene evaluation, bloodstain analysis and fingerprinting, but he acknowledges that he has no formal training in some of these areas. He says he taught himself about fingerprinting and other aspects of criminal forensics by reading textbooks and journals.
When asked about his training during an interview, Bennett says he isn't an expert in all of these areas but can subcontract with specialists who are. His literature and resume mention nothing about using outside specialists, but Bennett says he makes it clear to clients exactly where the limitations of his expertise lie.
'Whether I provide these services solely on my own or with the assistance of other specialists, we get the job done,' he says.
Dr. Perry Halushka, dean of the College of Graduate Studies at MUSC, says it is not uncommon for Ph.D.-holders in the sciences to branch off into different areas and broaden their expertise through self-teaching and research.
But Arnold Karig, campus dean of MUSC's College of Pharmacy, where Bennett trained, says a pharmacist likely would still need some advanced training or post-doctoral work to gain the necessary expertise to establish himself in the field of forensic toxicology. Toxicology studies how substances adversely affect the body. Forensic means that the science has a legal purpose behind it.
Other forensic toxicologists in South Carolina and other states say they expect their peers to demonstrate a minimum working knowledge of the field by passing a voluntary certification exam, participating in professional organizations, conducting research, publishing findings and subjecting their work to peer reviews and critique.
Bennett says he would like to conduct research and publish his work but just doesn't have the time. He sees little use in getting certified or joining professional organizations because such things 'are a lot of fluff' that cost money and time. He can gain just as much knowledge from his hands-on work and personal studies, he says.
Judy Gordon, director of the Charleston Police Department's crime lab, says it would be extremely rare for someone to achieve the wide-ranging level of expertise Bennett professes even from the best of textbooks.
'I'm of the opinion that if that's all you have, then it doesn't really mean anything unless you have the certifications to go along with it,' she says. 'Everything he has named has very specific training involved.'
Bennett says his studies and training also give him the right to call himself a medical review officer. That title is generally reserved for licensed physicians trained in federal drug testing regulations and certified by a nationally recognized association.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, whose drug-testing program is considered the model, requires these credentials for anyone serving as a medical review officer. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has proposed making medical review officer certification a mandatory requirement for all federal drug testing. The idea is that trained physicians are best able to evaluate test results, deal with clients in a confidential environment and explore possible medical conditions that can affect the tests.
Dr. Robert Swotinsky of the Schaumburg, Illinois-based Medical Review Officer Certification Council says a movement is growing among states to have trained and certified physicians evaluate drug tests. Fourteen states, including Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas, either require or provide incentives to encourage the use of medical review officers to evaluate drug tests. All but two of these states - Iowa and Oklahoma - require that licensed physicians hold the title. Four states - Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Oregon - mandate that licensed physicians order and review all lab tests, including drug screenings.
'Fifteen years ago it was like the Wild West, and everyone was trying to do it,' Swotinsky says. 'Now more states are adopting the DOT's process and DOT-like procedures.'
Bennett, however, says he can call himself a medical review officer as long as he doesn't conduct DOT tests and no state or federal law tells him otherwise. Moreover, Bennett asserts that his pharmacy training and experience with how drugs affect the human body make him more qualified than a physician to hold the job. He says medical doctors are 'an arrogant bunch' who simply are trying to solidify their hold on this niche market.
Ted Shults, chairman of the American Association of Medical Review Officers in Research Triangle Park, N.C., disagrees, saying numerous medical issues can arise in testing that a pharmacist isn't trained or licensed to deal with. He says it is 'simply misleading' for someone other than certified physicians to call themselves medical review officers. 'Implicit in the name is a medical component,' he says.
A matter of methods
Bennett's methods are increasingly being challenged by lawyers, litigants and others in the drug-testing field as his findings take center stage in bitter divorce and child custody cases.
Some who work in the drug-testing field question his periodic practice of collecting pubic hair samples to test for drugs. Dr. Ruth DeHaven, a licensed physician and director of St. Andrews Medical Center in West Ashley, says she received complaints from five women in three months last year who underwent this procedure at Bennett's orders. 'The only person I know who is routinely doing pubic hair is him,' says DeHaven, a nationally certified medical review officer.
Bennett says the procedure is performed infrequently but it is necessary at times because bleach, kerosene, antiseptic sprays and certain shampoos can render head hair worthless for drug testing. Some studies concur with this opinion. But others in the field say these substances have little or no impact on drug-test results.
Barry Sample is a science and technology director for Quest Diagnostics, one of the main labs used by Bennett. He says Quest has found no treatment that can defeat head hair drug tests. Baldness or extremely short head hair are the only reasons to collect hair from other areas, he says.
Jean Simmons, general manager of Lowcountry Drug Screening in North Charleston, says her company collects more than 1,300 samples for testing each month. She could recall only one instance in two years in which her workers had to resort to collecting pubic hair, and that was from a bodybuilder who had shaved his body.
Bennett says his critics are making a fuss over nothing. 'Chemically, hair's hair. It doesn't matter where it comes from.'
But most labs, including Quest, prefer head hair for testing because it is much easier to pinpoint when the person was exposed to drugs. Studies have shown that head hair grows about a half-inch per month, so labs generally test a 1 1/2-inch sample to look for drug use during a 90-day period.
Not as much is known about the growth rate of other body hair, Raymond C. Kelly, a drug-testing expert, says. So, even if drug traces are found in pubic or arm hair, it is nearly impossible to tell when the person was exposed to drugs or for how long. Kelly, who runs a forensic toxicology firm in Nevada, says for that reason labs want collectors to avoid mixing hair from different regions. They fear it will produce skewed or irrelevant results, he says.
Aaron Beaudrot, a state construction engineer, says one of Bennett's female assistants trimmed hair from his chest, underarms and groin when he went for a court-ordered drug test in April 2005 as part of his divorce proceedings. His embarrassment turned to shock a few days later when he learned the mixed sample had tested positive for cocaine.
'I was spazzing out when I heard that,' says Beaudrot, 29. 'I knew I didn't do anything like that.'
Beaudrot sought another opinion from DeHaven. She tested a hair sample from his head and found no sign of cocaine.
Both Bennett and DeHaven insist their tests yielded the correct results. Beaudrot says he knows in his heart which one is correct. But as he awaits a hearing this year to determine custody of his 3-year-old daughter, he can only wonder: Which test will the court choose to believe?
Bennett dismisses complaints about his credentials and practices as ill-informed criticism from people who simply don't like his results, don't understand the field of drug testing or are jealous of his success.
'I am troubled by the pettiness of those who have attacked me,' he says. 'I am an expert in the work I do because I am dedicated to the work I do, and I provide the best service I can to the community.'
Robert Dodenhoff, a Mount Pleasant-based entrepreneur who is business partners with Bennett, says it's no surprise that Bennett has become a lightning rod for criticism from people unhappy with their test results. Dodenhoff primarily handles the company's workplace drug-testing business while Bennett concentrates on court-related work. Those complaining about Bennett often are drug abusers trying to keep their addictions hidden, he says.
'An addict will do anything in the world to protect that addiction,' he says.
Local attorney Milton Stratos said he has used Bennett's services on occasion and considers him 'a prince of a guy' who goes beyond the call to do the best job he can. 'He is a responsible individual who takes his job seriously and believes he should do everything necessary to ensure the credibility of his findings,' he said.
Testing for traces
Bennett became the Family Court's primary drug tester largely because he promised that his tests and analysis can detect the smallest traces of drugs in a person's system. He maintains that his competitors use much higher cut-off levels and end up missing those who dabble in narcotics. He insists his techniques are the gold standard, boasting that he employs the same stringent cut-offs as the criminal courts.
That appeals to family law attorneys such as Stephen Dey of Charleston who want to know about any parental behavior that puts children at risk. 'It's a lifestyle issue I'm concerned with,' Dey says. 'Bad things happen around criminal activity, and I don't want kids exposed to it at all.'
But some experts say tests that push the limits of detection risk producing results that are meaningless or misleading. Other area companies stick to testing levels recommended by the federal government. Those levels have a higher minimum threshold for detecting drugs, but they remain the industry standard.
'Those guidelines are set for a reason,' says Scott Jenkins, vice president of the Greenville-based AccuDiagnostics drug-screening company. 'That's to eliminate someone just saying that they were exposed to drugs, not using them.'
Jim Ruth, a professor of medical chemistry at the University of Colorado and a member of the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, says a person could end up with trace amount of drugs in their system without realizing it. Maybe he handled a $20 bill someone else used to snort cocaine, or perhaps he was in a house where someone had been smoking methamphetamine without his knowledge, he says.
While lawyers may want to test people at the lowest possible levels, serious questions remain about the validity of the results and whether this approach is even fair, Ruth says.
'I have real problems with using superlow levels because they could just represent environmental exposure that could have nothing to do with a person's lifestyle,' he says. 'Drawing conclusions from those findings is really risky.'
Dr. Ken Tew, chairman of the pharmacology department at MUSC's College of Medicine, says someone who pursued Bennett's line of study likely would become very familiar with the principles and methods of toxicology, including how drugs affect the body. But Tew says he would be very uncomfortable testifying about experiments conducted by other scientists unless he had complete confidence in the equipment and methods used.
Bennett says he is confident in the labs he uses and regularly discusses the findings with the scientists who oversee the tests. But he offers the courts very little documentation to demonstrate how these tests are conducted and the results obtained. He says it costs extra money to have the labs furnish this information. Besides, he says, no one asks for it.
Reach Glenn Smith at email@example.com or (843) 937-5556.
||Truth in Justice