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Former ND State Crime Lab director calls firing a 'witch hunt'; Wrigley cites performance issues

The attorney general confirmed on Friday, Jan. 13, that he fired Robyn Quinn a week ago

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North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley testifies Thursday, Jan. 12, on Senate Bill 2131, which would place the independent State Crime Lab under his office's jurisdiction. Wrigley appeared before the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley has fired the State Crime Lab director for what he says are “performance-based” issues, but Robyn Quinn is calling her termination a “witch hunt.”

Wrigley confirmed to the Tribune on Friday, Jan. 13, that he fired Quinn a week ago, just days before he testified in front of a Senate committee about a bill that would allow oversight of the lab by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a part of his office.

Quinn told the Tribune that “I did not agree with Drew’s agenda and supported my employees 100%.”

During Thursday testimony on Senate Bill 2131, Wrigley alluded several times to changes in leadership at the lab. He told the Tribune on Friday that he decided to fire Quinn after he didn’t see solutions to administrative challenges that he said he was unaware of when he took office.

“There were no complaints about the science. That’s not the challenge,” Wrigley said. “The challenge is backlogs, and the leadership didn’t put forth a plan that was going to get us out of that.”

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Quinn was director and quality manager of the crime lab for 4½ years. In her statement to the Tribune, she said Wrigley lodged false accusations about a toxic work environment based on employee exit interviews she has “not seen to this day.”

Quinn claims Wrigley blamed her loss of staff on a training program that was too difficult. She said one employee was taken off casework and retrained twice when Quinn’s system of checking quality showed the employee was missing an understanding of analyses.

“I have tried explaining to him (Wrigley) NUMEROUS times that the training programs have to be hard AND that they are no different than any forensic lab in the country,” Quinn said. “I also tried explaining to him that a forensic lab can't afford to fast-track a trainee through the training program.”

Quinn added that she has felt since her first meeting with Wrigley that she’s been in a toxic work environment.

“He was appointed in February and didn't find the time to meet with me until May,” she said.

Gov. Doug Burgum appointed Wrigley to the post following the January 2022 death of longtime Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem due to cardiac arrest. Wrigley won election to a four-year term in last November's election.

Wrigley said he "inherited a group of division directors with whom I continue to work. Robyn is the only director to be removed."

Wrigley said he doesn't question Quinn's capabilities as a scientist — that her removal was based solely on her performance as director.

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"I wish Robyn Quinn the very best up ahead," he said.

Quinn said: “I feel that I was unjustly terminated. I was part of Wayne’s legacy, and Drew has been dismantling Wayne’s legacy since February 2022.”

Wrigley said he and Stenehjem were friends for 25 years and worked together, adding, "His legacy is well-intact."

Wrigley named Jennifer Penner, an employee of nearly 20 years at the lab, as interim director. Team leaders Char Rittenbach and Janelle Portscheller will take on additional duties during the transition.

The Senate State and Local Government committee on Thursday heard testimony on Senate Bill 2131, which if passed would delete from state law a line stating that the lab must be administratively separate from BCI. It wouldn’t mandate that the lab be under BCI, but would give attorneys general that option in the future, Wrigley testified.

Opponents of the bill say it won’t address backlog issues. They argue that oversight of the lab by BCI — the agency tasked with investigating and prosecuting crimes — could cast doubt on the lab’s work because the two entities aren’t separate.

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