By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES, Iowa — On Jan. 5, 2012, Paul Valin called the police to report he’d found a backpack containing what he believed to be meth-making equipment. That simple act of good citizenship landed his and wife Cindy’s house on the National Clandestine Laboratory Register, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of meth labs.
The NCLR “contains addresses of some locations where law enforcement agencies reported they found chemicals or other items that indicated the presence of either clandestine drug laboratories or dumpsites.”
The fact that Valin found the backpack more than 15 miles from his house isn’t the sort of thing the DEA or any other division of the Department of Justice would have checked on before publishing his address on the NCLR.
According to the NCLR website: “In most cases … the Department has not verified the entry and does not guarantee its accuracy….The Department does not accept responsibility or liability for damages of any kind resulting from reliance on an entry”.
Unlike the DOJ, Paul Valin is willing to accept responsibility. And that’s how his trouble started.
Since retiring from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Valin has regularly kayaked the Des Moines River.
“When I see something in the river that doesn’t belong there, I’ll pick it up, to recycle it or do something with it,” Valin told Iowa Watchdog.
While kayaking on an unseasonably warm January day in 2012, Valin spotted a backpack half submerged in the river and picked it up.
“I figured I’d take it home, see if it had any I.D. and get in touch with whoever lost it,” he explained.
Valin tossed the backpack into the bed of his pickup truck and drove home.
The backpack was still in the bed of the pickup when he and his wife, Cindy, decided to check its contents that evening. As soon as he unzipped the backpack and saw plastic bottles and rubber tubing inside, Valin suspected he’d found a kit for making meth.
Valin had received training on how to recognize meth-making equipment during his career at IDALS.
“Stay clear and report it was what they told us to do,” Valin recalled.
That’s exactly what the Valins did. They left the backpack outside and called the Des Moines Police Department.
An officer arrived and took a statement from Valin. A hazardous materials team collected the backpack. As far as the Valins knew, the whole thing was over.
No one from the police or any other agency ever contacted them regarding the backpack. Certainly no one told them their house was now on the NCLR.
Valin had never even heard of the NCLR until a reporter from television station KCCI knocked on his front door in January.
Meth-contaminated houses were receiving a lot of media attention at the time. A bill requiring someone selling a house to disclose whether meth had ever been made, sold or stored on the property was being considered by the state Senate.
The Polk County Assessor had also announced he was considering using the information on the NCLR when assessing the value of a house.
The KCCI reporter who knocked on Valin’s door was contacting a random selection of Polk County citizens whose houses were listed on NCLR to see if they were aware of the listing.
At first Valin was sure the reporter had the wrong address. Then his wife reminded him about the backpack.
Good luck getting off the list
Valin sent an email to the DEA explaining the facts of his case and asking that his address be removed from the NCLR. The reply he received three weeks later was not encouraging.
An unsigned email from NCLR@doj.gov explained that Valin’s address had been listed because of a Clandestine Laboratory Seizure form the DMPD submitted to the DEA following the collection of the backpack.
The form is routinely submitted by local law enforcement officials to the DEA after they have seized meth-making equipment.
According to the email, the DMPD officer who filled out the report had checked the boxes for “abandoned lab” and “boxed lab,” but didn’t include any other information, such as where and how Valin found the backpack.
That information was included on the original DMPD case investigation report that Iowa Watchdog obtained.
Iowa Watchdog contacted the DMPD to ask why that information wasn’t included in the report submitted to the DEA, but hasn’t received a reply.
The unsigned email Valin received said “DEA is only the caretaker of the website,” and like the DOJ, it isn’t responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the information on the NCLR.
According to the email, the only way to be removed from the NCLR is to have the law enforcement agency that originally submitted the address request it be removed or have “the local health agency” send an email to the DEA stating the property is free from any contamination associated with meth production.
The second option isn’t possible. No local or state health agencies in Iowa conducts such inspections. The state hasn’t even set any standards for what constitutes meth-related contamination.
Valin hasn’t had much luck with the first option, either. He’s still waiting for a reply to the voicemails he left at the DMPD phone number he was told to call.
Iowa Watchdog contacted the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center, which compiles the NCLR, about Paul Valin’s case.
In sharp contrast to the unsigned email, Special Agent Eric Neubauer immediately offered to help.
Iowa Watchdog provided Neubauer with a copy of the original police report and he is currently reviewing the facts in the case.
As for Paul Valin, he’s still amazed that simply doing the right thing could lead to the federal government publishing his home address on a list of meth labs.
Contact Paul Brennan at firstname.lastname@example.org