Anthrax probe invades Pa. health official's life

Chester commissioner says he's done no wrong, has no criticism for FBI

November 15, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The health commissioner of Chester, Pa., whose house was searched Tuesday by FBI agents pursuing the anthrax investigation, said last night that he is cooperating and has never worked with anthrax or any other dangerous biological agent.

"Absolutely not," said Dr. Irshad A. Shaikh, 39, who is also a faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "I'm not a lab person at all. My research has been on survey methodology."

Shaikh said he has no idea what prompted the FBI to question him; his brother, Dr. Masood Shaikh, who runs Chester's lead poisoning prevention program; and Asif Kazi, the city accountant, all natives of Pakistan. But he said they have nothing to hide.

He said he told the FBI agents "they can come back without a search warrant and look at anything they want at any time of day or night."

While calling the notion that he could be involved in the anthrax attacks "ludicrous," Shaikh nonetheless did not criticize the FBI.

"This is a time of war," he said. "In these times I can completely understand how aggressive the FBI can be. Actually I'm glad they're there to safeguard people."

Kazi told the Associated Press yesterday that the FBI agents asked him about anthrax and other biological agents, removed a computer, medicines and financial records and took swabs from his television and furniture.

He, too, denied any wrongdoing.

"I haven't had a parking ticket in my life. I'm shaking. We watch The X-Files on television, but we never thought it would happen here," Kazi said.

Masood Shaikh also has denied doing anything wrong.

Linda Vizi, a spokeswoman for the FBI, declined to discuss the investigation. She said the agents had search warrants that are under court seal.

The New York Times quoted a law enforcement source yesterday as saying preliminary tests on swabs taken during Tuesday's search were negative for anthrax.

After more than a month of intense investigation, FBI officials have made little progress in finding out who mailed at least three anthrax-laced envelopes to media and government offices. The anthrax attacks have killed four people and sickened at least 13 others.

Shaikh said it was a complete surprise when FBI agents arrived at his office Tuesday morning. Two agents questioned him for more than two hours. "It was A to Z, a whole personal history," he said.

Meanwhile, more than 30 agents, including some in biological safety suits, broke down the door to his house and began a 12-hour search there and at Kazi's nearby house.

Shaikh said he worked as a general practitioner and radiologist in Karachi and Islamabad, Pakistan, before moving to the United States in 1993.

In 1994, after completing a master's degree in public health at Hopkins, he became health commissioner in Chester, a gritty, poor city 15 miles from Philadelphia.

He completed a doctorate in public health at Hopkins in May and commutes to a Hopkins campus in Montgomery County to teach a health information systems course.

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