FBI: Disabled Army veteran can be readmitted to training academy

U.S. attorneys said Wednesday that the FBI is now willing to train a disabled U.S. Army veteran who successfully sued the agency over his removal from the academy. They just can’t do it anytime soon.

At a hearing in federal district court in Alexandria, the attorneys and a high-ranking FBI human resources official said for the first time that Justin Slaby could be reinstated to the special agent training program — an important development, even though a jury had awarded the veteran with a prosthetic left hand $75,000 in damages and determined that he was qualified to return to the academy.

But the attorneys and the official said that they would prefer that Slaby, 30, enroll in the next regular academy class, which, because of federal sequestration, is not likely to kick off before April 2015.

“I would say no, we’re not unwilling,” said Special Agent James Turgal, responding to a question about whether the FBI would resume Slaby’s training. “I think the impediments that exist right now are monetary, are financial based on the sequester.”

Federal District Judge Anthony Trenga eventually asked both sides for more legal briefs on the matter, though he seemed inclined to order Slaby’s reinstatement sooner rather than later. Slaby’s attorneys argued that Trenga should force the FBI to reinstate Slaby immediately — even if it meant creating a special training program for him.

“Any inconvenience to the FBI was caused by his unlawful removal, so they should bear the burden of that inconvenience,” attorney John Griffin said after the hearing.

Almost since it was filed last year, Slaby’s lawsuit has rippled through the FBI from Milwaukee to Washington. In the weeks before the trial began, a federal district court magistrate judge derided as “wholly inappropriate” comments that a Milwaukee supervising agent, Teresa Carlson, made to another agent who had evaluated Slaby before Slaby was hired. Carlson’s attorney has previously said she cannot comment because of a pending investigation by the inspector general’s office.

The lawsuit itself, though, was relatively simple. After Slaby, whose left hand was blown off by a defective “flash-bang” grenade in 2004, passed basic fitness-for-duty tests and was admitted to the FBI’s training academy in 2011, instructors removed him, concluding that he could not safely fire a gun with his prosthetic hand. He disagreed, sued and won.

If and how Slaby would be trained, though, was left for Trenga to decide. U.S. attorneys also said Wednesday that they were still considering filing motions to throw out the jury verdict or to ask for a new trial.

Slaby’s attorneys argued Wednesday that Slaby — who still works for the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, just not as a special agent — should begin special agent training immediately with Special Agent Charles Pierce, his FBI supervisor, serving as a monitor. Pierce testified for Slaby at his trial, calling him a “consummate professional.”

U.S. attorneys and Turgal countered that Slaby could not be reinstated immediately because the sequester had forced the FBI to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget and suspend all of its academy classes. They proposed that he be admitted to the next academy class, working with FBI lawyers and a human resources higher-up to make sure the process was fair.

But when that process would begin was uncertain, they acknowledged. Turgal said he did not expect any new classes until at least April 2015, unless Congress somehow ended the sequester before that. He argued that it would be difficult to train Slaby on his own because training often requires prospective agents to work in groups.

In response to Trenga’s questioning, though, Turgal eventually acknowledged that the FBI could accommodate Slaby, perhaps by using other agents to serve as actors in group scenarios.

“Certainly, it’s possible,” he said.

Trenga scheduled a hearing for Sept. 12 to continue working out details of the case.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.

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