WASHINGTON – On the day that would change his career, Matthew Litton sat in a crisis negotiations course at Quantico, Va., headquarters for his elite FBI counterterrorism team. The former Green Beret was summoned by his supervisor to a room down the hall. Matt thought it was a role-playing, training exercise until he noticed that the woman sitting across from him was shaking. She wore body armor under her business suit.
Federal investigators began questioning the veteran of Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan about his doctor and prescription medications. Had he ever heard of anabolic steroids? Had he ever taken human growth hormone?
Matt, who has dodged explosives in the Middle East and fast-roped from helicopters as a member of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, was arrested, handcuffed and taken to the D.C. jail.
Soon his wife, Katia, an FBI special agent, was locked in a separate cell. Matt’s laces were cut out of his Merrell trail shoes. Katia sobbed and started to hyperventilate. Matt shouted to her that it was a misunderstanding and would be over soon. But their arrest in September 2010 was just the beginning.
The Littons, along with two other FBI employees arrested that day, were depicted in court papers and in national news reports, including in The Washington Post, as being part of an alleged steroid ring. Matt was described in court filings as “extremely muscular” and Katia as a “former bodybuilder” - a reference to bikini fitness contests she had competed in years earlier.
The couple was charged in U.S. District Court with making false statements for failing to list their medications, including steroids and human growth hormone, on forms required by the FBI. The criminal complaint suggested that the couple had received fake diagnoses from their doctor to obtain the prescriptions.
But what the Littons would eventually tell federal investigators was a very different story. The medications, they said, were part of their unsuccessful efforts over 12 years to have a baby.
“We weren’t bodybuilders,” Matt said. “We were just trying to have a family.”
Two months later, the charges were dropped. A criminal probe continued, but authorities ultimately ended the investigation without a prosecution.
Still, more than three years after their arrest, an administrative review continues, leaving the couple essentially on the sidelines at the Washington Field Office and Quantico.
From the Littons’ perspective, the inquiry has destroyed their savings, derailed their careers and set back their pregnancy plans. The couple has been prevented from seeking transfers, promotions and performing critical aspects of their jobs because their top-level security clearances have not been restored.
“We’ve been in still water,” Katia said. “There has to be some sort of justice to let people move on.”
The couple’s unresolved case also has raised broader questions about how much information FBI agents have to disclose about their medical treatments and medications.
To the FBI, the physical fitness - and candor - of its special agents is critical. A bureau spokesman, Paul Bresson, declined to comment on the Littons’ specific situation because it is a personnel matter.
In general, special agents are required to undergo a “stringent process of personal, physical and mental evaluation,” including routine fitness-for-duty exams, background investigations and lie detector tests to maintain their security clearances, according to court papers.
“FBI employees must be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct,” former deputy director Timothy Murphy said in a statement on the day of the Littons’ arrest.
When the Littons got together at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in the late 1990s, Matt was about to leave the Army and dreamed of joining the highly selective FBI team.
Katia, a Peruvian immigrant and former journalist, soon followed him into the high-pressure world of federal law enforcement.
The couple, then in their 30s, began trying to get pregnant.
Matt, an all-around tough guy with the broad shoulders of a former high school rugby player, mostly kept quiet about his endocrine disorder and fertility problems when he was at Quantico.
The intense alpha-male environment is similar to that of a professional sports team or military special-forces unit. Everyone is looking for a competitive edge, and a perceived weakness such as infertility would be a distraction on the job.
“I didn’t want to talk about my zero sperm count and low testosterone, especially where I work,” Matt said.
The exception he made was discussing the situation with the team’s chief medical officer. The two talked at length, Matt said, to ensure that the hormones he was taking would not affect medications dispensed for the team’s high-risk operations.
Matt is prohibited from revealing specifics of his squad’s often secretive missions, but the team responds to large-scale man hunts and terrorist threats, in addition to rescuing hostages. In August, two teams were dropped from helicopters into the rugged Idaho wilderness and rescued a 16-year-old girl after shooting her abductor.
Katia, who works in counterterrorism at the Washington Field Office, confided only in close friends about the fertility treatments. A fitness buff, she preferred to regale colleagues about her strenuous workouts and diets.
For the couple, the process had been discouraging - four years of treatments at three fertility clinics in Maryland and Virginia between 2006 and 2010 and multiple miscarriages. One came at seven weeks, after the couple had listened to the heartbeat and while Matt was overseas.
In their search for help, the couple flew to Michigan for testing and a hormone therapy regime that would become the source of their problems.
By summer 2010, the Littons - then 39 and 42 - still had hopes for a successful pregnancy. After more than a year on a waiting list, they marked their kitchen calendar to begin a $50,000 procedure with an egg donor.
The money would instead pay for a team of criminal defense lawyers.
In January 2012, the U.S. attorney’s office closed the criminal inquiry. After 500 days without pay, the Littons were reinstated that February. But their troubles were not over.
Back at work, the couple faced a fresh inquiry. The Justice Department’s inspector general, whose office conducted the initial criminal investigation, opened an administrative inquiry into whether the four employees had “made false statements and omitted required information from official FBI documents.”
Court filings suggest that two questions on routine 2007 medical forms were at the heart of the case against the Littons: Had they been treated by doctors or other practitioners within the past five years for anything other than a minor illness? Matt and Katia checked no.
Another section asked them to list “current medications.” Neither listed the testosterone or HGH that had been prescribed for them beginning in 2006.
Katia said she had stopped taking the medications by the time she filled out the form. Matt said he wanted to preserve a modicum of privacy in his macho, tight-knit brotherhood of a team.
“There would be no end to the teasing,” he said.
More broadly, the Littons say their struggles to have a baby are none of the FBI’s business.
“It never occurred to me to define 61/87my fertility problems63/87 as an illness,” Katia said.
The FBI’s routine medical exams are the norm for public safety jobs that require overall physical fitness. But the bureau is prohibited under federal disabilities law, disability and employment law experts say, from asking broad questions that elicit personal information unrelated to an agent’s ability to perform on the job.
The form in question in the Littons’ case is a standard government form. The FBI now uses a different form that asks similar questions but with a caveat: Completion is “voluntary,” although failure to supply the information may affect “continued employment.”
The Littons are not the only ones challenging the FBI’s medical policies and protesting the length of the ongoing administrative inquiry. James “Drew” Barnett, a former Navy officer severely injured in Afghanistan, was the third special agent arrested in 2010. Like the Littons, he has appealed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and denies any wrongdoing.
The fourth person initially charged in the case, FBI analyst Ali Sawan, is still employed by the bureau. He did not return a phone message seeking comment.
After 19 months, the inspector general’s office completed its investigation in October. Its private report is now in the hands of the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility. The review could clear the couple or result in suspension or dismissal. The outcome hinges largely on whether the office believes the Littons’ account.
Years before Matt met Katia, a rare endocrine order that affects his pituitary gland was diagnosed. When the couple began trying to have a baby, a Chapel Hill, N.C., medical professor put him on hormones to boost sperm production.
When the couple moved to Northern Virginia in 2005, Matt struggled to find a local doctor for hormone replacement therapy covered by his Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plan. He found one in Michigan, and adult growth hormone deficiency was diagnosed.
The couple was still not getting pregnant, and Matt’s doctor recommended that Katia undergo similar tests. The results showed that Katia had a thyroid disorder and low levels of testosterone.
There is some debate surrounding the appropriateness of the medications prescribed by the Littons’ Michigan doctor. Two urologists who specialize in infertility said in interviews that two of the prescriptions Matt was taking were not mainstream therapies for men trying to conceive.
The Littons said they understand how their treatments could have raised questions, especially because the investigation coincided with high-profile prosecutions involving performance-enhancing drugs and baseball stars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
It didn’t help that the Littons’ affinity for exercise was well known and that being fit is a critical part of Matt’s job description. Friends jokingly refer to the couple’s three-bedroom condominium in McLean as a mini-Quantico because the living room is taken over by a treadmill, pull-up bar, weights and a laser system for target practice.
But Matt points to a thick binder of medical records to show that there is no mainstream therapy for his disorder. His sperm count increased, he said, only after finding the right combination of drugs initially prescribed by Frank Patino, a Michigan internist trained in sports medicine. Matt has since found an endocrinologist in the District who is prescribing the same regime - medications that are being covered by his insurance plan.
“The investigators didn’t understand, and they didn’t take the time to ask him why his situation might be different,” the Littons’ attorney, Lisa Banks, said. “There are medical reasons for everything he did and medical documentation to support it.”
Adding to the Littons’ problems, their Michigan doctor was also under investigation. Patino wrote more than 5,200 prescriptions for anabolic steroids, according to court filings. Health insurance paperwork was submitted for hundreds of his patients, including the Littons, under the diagnosis code for “pituitary dwarfism” - a code other doctors described as atypical.
Patino was never charged. He said in an interview that Blue Cross Blue Shield triggered the investigation because he was infringing on the company’s profit margin by legitimately diagnosing illnesses and getting the insurer to cover expensive prescriptions.
A spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan said the company does not comment on its investigations.
“It wasn’t about them, it was about me and I feel badly for that,” Patino said of the Littons. “These people have suffered. They didn’t deserve that.”
FBI special agents are typically reticent to talk on the record with reporters. But the Littons decided to tell their story after earlier news reports online - and their unresolved case - began to hurt their attempts to work with other families in the couple’s ongoing effort to have a baby. Some of the Littons’ colleagues share their frustration.
“It’s like having your life paused and no one telling you when it’s going to be on play again,” said one colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing review. “I guess the government eats its own sometimes.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.