The actions came after the Justice Department's inspector general turned in a report to FBI Director Louis J. Freeh that apparently raised questions about the lab's work in a number of criminal investigations.
Frederic Whitehurst, a 13-year crime lab veteran, was suspended "pending our review of information in the possession of the Department of Justice," said acting lab director Donald W. Thompson. The transferred employees were: David Williams, a supervisor agent; Tom Thurman, unit chief of the explosives division; and Roger Martz, chief of the chemistry and toxicology division.
Whitehurst allegedly talked with a writer for Playboy magazine about mishandling of evidence in the crime lab. He charged that lax forensic work has compromised evidence in several cases.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary subcommitee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, sent a letter to Freeh demanding an explanation for Whitehurst's suspension, characterizing him as a whistleblower.
"Recently, a Department of Justice official knowledgeable about the IG's investigation told me privately that Dr. Whitehurst had done a service for his country in bringing forth this information," Grassley wrote. "The action taken by the FBI implies that he is being punished for 'committing truth.' It appears to be a reprisal for his disclosures."
The IG's report is still being reviewed by the FBI. Its findings could affect several highly-publicized cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing trial. The lawyer for Timothy McVeigh, who is charged in that case, has indicated he may call Whitehurst as a witness to challenge the integrity of FBI evidence against his client.
Whitehurst has criticized FBI lab work since 1989, when he was a lab supervisor.
Sen. Grassley warned FBI officials that "the public will not tolerate the persecution of a bearer of truth by a government agency seeking to shoot the messenger instead of fixing the problem."
The FBI is investigating whether Whitehurst's alleged communications with the writer for Playboy violated rules of the Privacy Act.