Robert O'Block is the 47-year-old founder and head of the American College of Forensic Examiners, a nonprofit organization that vouches an expert witness is indeed expert.
Some of the 12,000 members of his six-year-old Springfield, Mo., organization have weighed in on some of the decade's most celebrated legal proceedings: the O.J. Simpson trial, the Unabomber case, the Vincent Foster suicide and the Oklahoma City bombing, to name a few.
In the process, the college's annual revenue has soared to $2.2 million, and the founder's salary has more than quadrupled, to $189,000. But a growing number of detractors are unimpressed. Some call the college a diploma mill and want to see it put out of business.
The roots of the controversy are in a Supreme Court decision intended to tighten the standards applied to determining the quality of expert testimony by an expert witness. The ruling, in 1993, came from the case of Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals and directed federal judges to do a better job weeding out unqualified expert testimony.
That prompted judges nationwide to dismiss expert witnesses without proper credentials -- and caused a rush by would-be expert witnesses to bolster resumes. But there were few places to turn for help. Dr. O'Block says the field of forensic science at the time "really was a very closed society -- like a plumbers' union."
He moved quickly to fill the void. A one-time juvenile-probation officer and college professor, he was living in Branson, Mo., at the time and running a group of handwriting experts. Sensing an opportunity, he drew up glossy brochures and started a mail and telephone blitz to recruit forensic experts from all walks of life -- accountants, geneticists, physiologists -- using a computer and two tables in a small room in his home.
Later, he installed a toll-free line, 1-800-4A-Expert, for lawyers to call. To keep costs low, he put his wife and children on the board of his group, originally called the American Board of Forensic Examiners, paying his family members bargain-basement salaries. He outfitted his Jeep Cherokee with license plate ABFE-1.
Dr. O'Block's credentialing procedure costs $350. It essentially works this way: Prospective experts fill out applications, attaching professional licenses and detailing years of experience, professional degrees and published articles, among other things. They then must post at least a 75 percent score on an ethics test administered by the college, which they can take three more times if they fail (the group will waive the exam if it decides an applicant has enough expertise). Dr. O'Block himself ultimately determines who gets a credential, based on his review of an applicant's background.
His detractors say the procedure lacks the rigor of most credentialing processes, which traditionally involve intense scrutiny from professional associations or state boards along with arduous exams administered by panels of experts. Critics include a group of about 40 forensic scientists who -- in a letter-writing campaign to state education officials in Missouri -- have chastised him for running a diploma mill.
Dr. O'Block chalks it up to rivalry. "The more people certified by us, the more competition they have to face," he says. "There's a lot of politics at work here with other groups. They tend to see themselves as insiders, and we're the outsiders."
Dr. O'Block's group has given credentials to David Rosengard, a White House physician under President Lyndon Johnson; John Duffy, an assistant U.S. surgeon general; and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, including one, John Douglas, who revolutionized criminal profiling at the agency. He says forensic experts like the group because it provides a network where they can update themselves on trends, among other things. He adds that his group's review process is becoming more rigorous by beefing up testing and course-work requirements.
Currently, Dr. O'Block is seeking permission to establish an Internet-based educational program that would offer doctorates in forensic science. No college has jumped at the opportunity to host the program. In fact, Drury College in Springfield, Mo., rejected the group's offer because its recommended courses, including a class on setting up an expert-witness business, "were too broad and too shallow," says Stephen Good, Drury's vice president of academic affairs.
Dr. O'Block responds: "Drury wasn't a good fit."
Dr. O'Block taught criminal justice for about 10 years, beginning in the early 1980s, at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. But the school dismissed him in May 1991 for allegedly plagiarizing academic articles on such topics as "Crime and Criminal Sentences in Iceland," according to a copy of a letter from the school to Dr. O'Block and school officials.
The plagiarism allegations weren't true, Dr. O'Block says, adding that the school moved against him because he was a whistleblower who "tried to point out inequities in teachers' pay raises and teaching loads."
As for the present, he seems to have the witness-certification business mostly to himself. Legal experts say few, if any, expert-witness groups give out board-certified sheepskin such as the one from Dr. O'Block's group. But some say the Supreme Court decision created a broadening market for what they call "expert-witness warehouses," in which groups of professionals band together to market their expert testimony for a fee. Ads for these warehouses litter the back of legal magazines.