Austin company helps police prepare for possible terrorism

Relationship between two police officers and company leads to internal affairs investigation

By Tony Plohetski, Staff Writer
Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, July 15, 2004

Three years ago, Austin aerospace engineers Adam Hamilton and Mike Regester launched a business to study the threat of terrorism in the United States and started marketing their skills to government agencies.

The two University of Texas graduates' timing couldn't have been better.

Six months later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned Signature Science into a nationally known company. In three years, its profits have tripled to $12 million, and today, its staff of 65 chemists, meteorologists, biologists, statisticians and former Austin police officers is busy teaching law enforcement and other government workers how to recognize and respond to terrorist attacks.

The company also has developed close ties to the Austin Police Department. A relationship that began with a $36,000 contract to train officers later saw the department send officers to work out of Signature Science's offices, rent free. Two of those officers also began moonlighting for Signature Science, then resigned from the department as internal affairs began looking into their work arrangement.

Despite the investigation, both sides say they have a symbiotic relationship. Hamilton said Signature Science, which is not the target of the investigation, got to be a friend to the community and the department by providing easy access to its experts. Police Chief Stan Knee said officers learned about new terrorist threats and response techniques that they could share with colleagues.

"What we wanted to do in a very short period of time was gain as much expertise as possible," Knee said this week. "Here we had in our own back yard a firm in Austin. We felt like it was an opportunity we needed to grab hold of."

Questions arise

After Commander Ricky Hinkle started questioning the office-sharing arrangement, the department pulled its officers from Signature Science in early March. The two officers who were moonlighting for the company, Cpl. Craig Miller and Sgt. Stephen Simank, resigned March 26 and took full-time jobs with the company -- about 10 days after the internal affairs investigation began.

Simank and Miller could not be reached for comment.

"They gave a great deal to this department with their expertise," said Knee, who would not comment on the investigation. "They made a decision to change professions."

Hamilton and Regester joined the engineering firm Radian Corp. in the mid-1980s. The company, founded by the late Austin businessman and civic leader Neal Kocurek, had mostly worked in the environmental policy arena, helping agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency develop regulations and private businesses conduct soil and ground water testing.

As a Radian employee, Hamilton traveled to Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, where he grew increasingly intrigued by misuse of lethal chemicals.

"It's an interesting combination of science that can be used to do good things, but people who have ulterior motives can use them to weaponize with devastating effects," he said. "The interest is, 'How can we prevent the proliferation of that type of technology and weapons?' "

Dow Chemical Co. bought Radian in the mid-1990s, and the company went through two more ownership changes before Hamilton and Regester decided to go into business for themselves, taking Radian employees and assets with them. Signature Science was born in March 2001 and made security consulting its bread and butter.

The company won't divulge the names of its clients, but Hamilton said they include government and law enforcement agencies.

Last year, the Texas Workforce Commission gave the company a $500,000 grant to conduct 30 workshops across the state, teaching Texas educators about gang conflicts, school shootings and the possibility of terrorist attacks.

The company also trains federal agents how to recognize biological and nuclear threats, about the kinds of protective gear they should use and how to render aid to victims.

Donald Snow, a political science professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in terrorism and national security, said the need for companies such as Signature Science continues to grow, but relatively few companies exist to meet the demand.

"There is a tremendous market out there," he said.

9/11 was catalyst

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, law enforcement agencies across the country were rushing to prepare themselves for the unknown, including the fear of an attack in their cities.

In Austin, police officials formed the new homeland security division, 46 officers who gather intelligence about possible terrorism in Austin, learn to identify explosives and protect visiting dignitaries.

Knee said he and other top department leaders met in October with representatives of Signature Science, a company Knee had learned about from retired Austin FBI supervisor Byron Sage.

One of the department's representatives was Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman, who retired in December and later took a job with Signature Science. Chapman left the department after an independent investigator looked into allegations that he lied under oath in a deposition. The investigation was inconclusive.

According to the department's contract with Signature Science, the training sessions began in December 2001 and continued through March 2002. Officers learned basic descriptions of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials and weapons, signs and symptoms of exposure and a response plan for first responders.

Knee said he thought the training was "exceptional."

"You had people involved who were actual experts, but they could also relate to the officers so that somebody who got a C-minus in chemistry would be able to know the dangers, recognize the signs and use the equipment at hand that could save their lives and other lives," he said.

Knee said Miller's and Simank's part-time employment with Signature Science was not unlike other officers working for private companies. Off-duty police routinely work after hours to provide security and consulting, and Knee said the two were learning skills they could bring back to the department. Last fall, Knee granted extended leaves to Miller and Simank for them to travel to Iraq with Signature Science.

"It didn't raise any issues, but we certainly did make inquiries to make sure the department was benefiting from this relationship, and when questions arose, we were quick to act," Knee said.

The investigation started after a new commanderof the homeland security division began reviewing the department's relationship with Signature Science and officers' off-duty work with the company, Knee said.

He would not say what the investigation is about, and the department has declined to provide copies of Miller's and Simank's off-duty logs with the company because of the investigation.

Knee said that as is standard practice, the investigation will be turned over to the Travis County district attorney's office by the end of next month for review.

He said that although no officers currently are employed by Signature Science or working out of their offices, the city still has a partnership with the company. Its experts, for example, have agreed to be available to officers at all times in case of an emergency in Austin.

"This has not hurt our relationship at all," he said.

tplohetski@statesman.com; 445-3605