4 analysts at Houston Forensic Science Center fired after starting own DNA company, officials say

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Thursday, December 15, 2022
Publicly-funded Houston crime lab fires 4 workers over side business
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The employees are accused of starting their own consulting company in forensic biology, which broke policy. We're looking into if the firings will affect any cases.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Four employees at the Houston Forensic Science Center were fired last week, after their superiors discovered they started a private DNA testing lab, then lied about it when questioned by their employer.

Operating the lab while employed as forensic scientists is a direct violation of their employment contracts.

The company was called DNA Mavens. It is unclear if the lab has any actual clients, but it does have a robust social media presence.

"They were engaged in similar testing to what their employer was doing," Jed Silverman, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said.

Silverman found out because the Forensic Science Center had to send letters to both defense attorneys and the Harris County District Attorney's Office, telling them employees whom they depended on to test crime scene evidence were fired.

"If they're not abiding by an employment contract, it creates a huge problem," Silverman said. "Because you wonder, 'What else are they not telling the truth about?'"

According to a letter provided to ABC13 by the Harris County District Attorney's Office, these were the four who were fired:

  • Cynthia Cale, assistant technical leader
  • India Henry, training coordinator
  • Marisil Wright-Pennant, forensic analyst
  • Zoraya Reyes, forensic analyst

The names of the women are featured prominently on the DNA Mavens website and social media pages. However, calls to their phones and to the company's listed number went unanswered.

The Houston Forensic Science Center sent the following letter to The Harris County District Attorney's Office, which then provided the letter to ABC13 with more on the background of the women and the accusations against them.

Cynthia Cale:

Cynthia Cale was an Assistant Technical Leader in the Forensic Biology section and had been employed by HFSC since Jan. 7, 2019. In the Spring of 2022, it was brought to the attention of HFSC that Ms. Cale was operating an external consulting firm, CMC Consultants, without having had submitted an Extra Employment Request form. She was advised to submit a form, completed one, and it was subsequently denied. She was informed that she could not continue operating her consulting company and work for HFSC due to a conflict of interest. Ms. Cale acknowledged this conflict of interest and chose to remain at HFSC. In early November 2022, it was revealed that Ms. Cale was still operating her consulting company and providing services that overlapped with her duties at HFSC. In investigating the issue regarding Ms. Cale's potential violation of the extra employment policy, it was discovered that Ms. Cale was also involved in an organization called DNA Mavens, LLC. Further investigation into DNA Mavens, LLC revealed that the company had formed and been in business since August 2022, and is offering services that are in direct competition with HFSC. Ms. Cale had not submitted an extra employment form for DNA Mavens, LLC, despite previously being made aware of the policy. The DNA Mavens website solicits donations for the company to open a forensic laboratory in Houston, Texas. In addition to Ms. Cale, 3 additional HFSC employees were listed as officers, Zoraya Reyes, India Henry, and Marisil Wright-Pennant. Moreover, these employees were meeting to discuss their outside business plans during work hours.

Ms. Cale knowingly and willfully violated the HFSC Extra Employment policy. She violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for Forensic Analysts and Crime Laboratory Management by not avoiding conflicts of interest. She violated the HFSC Code of Ethics by her lack of honesty and transparency. Lastly, she violated the Electronic Communications policy by using HFSC equipment to conduct business for DNA Mavens LLC, including fundraising and business plans.

Zoraya Reyes:

Ms. Reyes was hired by HFSC on April, 9 2018 as a forensic analyst in the Forensic Biology section. On Nov. 22, 2022, Forensic Biology management discovered Ms. Reyes was listed as a managing member for DNA Mavens, LLC, a company that had been formed and operating since August 2022 and offering services that are in direct competition with HFSC's. During the investigation of the DNA Mavens, LLC, Ms. Reyes stated she was aware of the previous denial of Ms. Cale's extra employment and was aware of the policies about extra employment.

Ms. Reyes violated the HFSC Code of Ethics by her lack of honesty and transparency, in setting up DNA Mavens, LLC without seeking advice from HFSC. She further engaged in dishonesty by providing false responses during the initial portion of the investigation, admitting her dishonesty only after presented with documentation she could not refute. Ms. Reyes violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for Forensic Analysts and Crime Laboratory Management by not avoiding conflicts of interest. Ms. Reyes violated the HFSC Extra Employment policy by not seeking approval for extra employment. Lastly, Ms. Reyes violated the Electronic Communications policy by using HFSC equipment to conduct business for the DNA Mavens LLC, including fundraising and business plans.

India Henry:

Ms. Henry was hired by HFSC on March 31, 2018 and was the training coordinator for the Forensic Biology section. On Nov. 22, 2022, Forensic Biology management discovered Ms. Henry was listed as the Training Coordinator for educational programming for DNA Mavens, LLC, a company that had been formed and operating since August 2022 and offering services that are in direct competition with HFSC. During the investigation of the DNA Mavens, LLC, Ms. Henry stated she was aware of the previous denial of Ms. Cale's extra employment and was aware of the policies about extra employment.

Ms. Henry knowingly and willfully participated in establishing DNA Mavens LLC, a forensic consulting company whose services overlap with services offered by HFSC. Ms. Henry violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for Forensic Analysts and Crime Laboratory Management by not avoiding conflicts of interest. Ms. Henry violated the HFSC Code of Ethics by her lack of honesty and transparency, in setting up DNA Mavens, LLC without seeking advice from HFSC. She further engaged in dishonesty by providing false responses during the initial portion of the investigation. Ms. Henry violated the HFSC Extra Employment policy by not seeking approval for extra employment. She further violated that policy by conducting business for DNA Mavens while on work time for HFSC. Lastly, Ms. Henry violated the Electronic Communications policy by using HFSC equipment to conduct business for the DNA Mavens LLC, including fundraising and business plans.

Marisil Wright-Pennant:

Ms. Wright-Pennant was hired by HFSC on July 20, 2020 as a forensic analyst in the Forensic Biology section. On Nov. 22, 2022, Forensic Biology management discovered Ms. Wright-Pennant was listed as a managing member for DNA Mavens, LLC, a company that had been formed and operating since August 2022 and offering services that are in direct competition with HFSC's. During the investigation of the DNA Mavens, LLC, Ms. Wright-Pennant stated she was aware of the previous denial of Ms. Cale's extra employment and was aware of the policies about extra employment.

Ms.Wright-Pennant violated the HFSC Code of Ethics by her lack of honesty and transparency, in setting up DNA Mavens, LLC without seeking advice from HFSC. She further engaged in dishonesty by providing false responses during the initial portion of the investigation, admitting her dishonesty only after presented with documentation she could not refute. Ms. Wright-Pennant violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for Forensic Analysts and Crime Laboratory Management by not avoiding conflicts of interest. Ms. Wright-Pennant violated the HFSC Extra Employment policy by not seeking approval for extra employment. Lastly, Ms. Wright-Pennant violated the Electronic Communications policy by using HFSC equipment to conduct business for the DNA Mavens LLC, including fundraising and business plans.

Because the firings are so recent, nobody involved knows how many cases it could affect.

"It could mean good people who did not commit a crime could get convicted, and it could mean people who are guilty could get away. It cuts both ways," Silverman said. "We don't know yet."

The district attorneys office and the Harris County Defense Bar say they are working through cases to see which ones were impacted.

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