GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 3, 2012

Still no answers in drug lab probe

From Wire and
Staff Reports

---- — BOSTON — Facing questions from lawmakers, a top Patrick administration official says there were still no clear answers to the fundamental question of how a former state lab chemist working out of Jamaica Plain was able to get away for so long with evidence tampering that has jeopardized as many as 34,000 criminal drug cases, including at least some tied to Gloucester and the Essex County courts.

“We have asked the question: ‘What happened?’ and ‘How could one chemist have caused so much damage?’ Annie Dookhan violated the public trust in choosing to do what she did. She bears responsibility and is facing criminal charges for these acts,” said Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, testifying last week before three House committees at an oversight hearing into Hinton drug lab fiasco.

Dookhan is the former state drug lab chemist who has admitted to State Police to tampering with drug samples for a period of two to three years. Attorney General Martha Coakley has already charged Dookhan with falsifying her resume and obstruction of justice, and asked the court to postpone a pre-trial date in anticipation of further grand jury indictments by Dec. 20, according to court documents.

The criminal investigation being conducted by Coakley and the lab review being done by Inspector General Glen Cuhna could shed more light on how Dookhan’s actions went undetected for so long and whether the state will be exposed to civil litigation, officials said. Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said there was no evidence yet to suggest the work of other chemists has been compromised.

The House committees on public health, public safety and post audit and oversight convened the hearing to look into the drug lab affair as the second of three oversight hearings exploring problems within the Department of Public Health. The first hearing focused on the nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak and compounding pharmacy oversight. At the final hearing — on Dec. 12, a week from today — representatives will hear testimony from sheriffs, court leaders and other law enforcement officials.

Lawmakers have peppered Bigby with questions about lab procedures and oversight protocols in place that might have stopped Dookhan sooner. And while Bigby said she could not speculate about Dookhan’s motivations, she acknowledged the pressure placed on chemists at the Jamaica Plain lab by a backlog of cases, and Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said $3.4 million was needed to hire additional chemists to lighten the load.

Heffernan noted that dire early predictions of hundreds or thousands of inmates being released simultaneously as a result of their convictions being overturned because of Dookhan’s action have not been as bad as feared. The public safety chief said 388 offenders have been brought before judges so far, and, as of Nov. 10, only 195 have been released, 79 of them in Boston.

In the lone reported Gloucester case brought forward to date — involving Gloucester resident Matthew Reis, who pleaded guilty to dealing heroin in Gloucester and Beverly back in 2009, Dookhan was the confirmated chemist in the case, and public defender Alice Jayne asked for a stay, but the request was denied.

Bigby, however, said she agreed that red flags raised by Dookhan’s high level of productivity that exceeded that of her former lab colleagues were “not properly investigated,” and told lawmakers her review of the lab uncovered “serious lapses in oversight,” including outdated operational procedures and a failure of supervisors to properly monitor their subordinates.

She also said the lab’s lack of formal accreditation was “perhaps one of the contributing factors,” and surmised that the lab had not been accredited by a national organization because its position as a public health agency and not a criminal justice agency was unique.

Linsky said he was particularly troubled by lack of accreditation, while Rep. Harold Naughton, co-chair of the Committee on Public Safety, said “my head almost explodes” when he hears about breaches in evidence chains of custody. Naughton, a U.S. Army Reserves captain, said Afghan police forces in Kandahar were doing a better job of preserving chain of custody when he left that country last year after helping to train law enforcement personnel while on active duty.

In response to a question from Republican Rep. Nick Boldyga, Bigby said she did not believe there was a “culture of people trying to hide problems” in the Department of Public Health.

“Ultimately, even with the checks and balances and excellent policy and procedures, if an individual decides to behave in this way I don’t know that it can always be prevented,” Bigby said.

Bigby emphasized that procedures at the 17 remaining public health labs at the Hinton facility in Boston have been reviewed by the Association of Public Health Laboratories and federal accrediting agencies who found “no major deficiencies.” The operations of the drug lab were transferred in fiscal 2012 to the State Police.

Heffernan told House lawmakers that the State Police needed a $3.4 million infusion of state funding in fiscal 2013, including $1.95 million in one-time appropriations, to address a backlog of 10,300 drug samples awaiting testing at the police drug crime lab in Sudbury. It would take two years to clear the backlog with the additional hires, Heffernan said.

The money would come out of Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget request to the Legislature for $30 million to deal with the initial costs of the fallout from the scandal, and Heffernan said it was needed to hire 24 additional chemists, to purchase equipment and to expand existing lab space.