Mass. Health Commissioner resigns, cites drug lab

Sep 17, 2012, 10:43 PM

Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach resigned Monday in the wake of a growing investigation into a chemist whose alleged mishandling of drug samples led police to shut down the state crime lab and re-examine tens of thousands of drug cases.

Auerbach said it’s clear that there was “insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigating on the part of supervisors and managers” at the lab, which had been overseen by the Department of Public Health before being transferred to state police as part of a budgetary realignment.

“What happened at the drug lab was unacceptable and the impact on people across the state may be devastating, particularly for some within the criminal justice system.” Auerbach said in a written statement Monday. “We owe it to ourselves and the public to make sure we understand exactly how and why this happened.”

Auerbach said he will continue to work with investigators.

Gov. Deval Patrick accepted the resignation, calling the failures at the lab serious. He said the actions and inactions of lab management compounded the problem.

Authorities have not released specific details about what chemist Annie Dookhan allegedly did.

But in a letter sent last week to defense attorneys around the state, Max Stern, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said he was told in a meeting with Patrick and other administration officials that the chemist is accused of deliberately tampering with some drug samples, including the weight of the samples, which can affect the length of prison sentences given to people convicted of drug offenses.

“Apparently, the lab analyst in question had unsupervised access to the drug safe and evidence room, and tampered with evidence bags, altered the actual weight of the drugs, did not calibrate machines correctly, and altered samples so that they would test as drugs when they were not,” Stern said in the letter.

“The lab is apparently unable to tie this conduct to specific cases. And the conduct appears to have occurred over a prolonged period. There are also questions about supervision of the lab generally, failure to follow and update protocols throughout the lab, the quality of the analyst’s work due to the exceptional number of analyses she conducted, and the particular analyst’s sign-off on the work of others. “

State police took over the lab July 1 and closed it last month after discovering the extent of Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug samples.

“The commissioner recognizes that, as the head of DPH, he shares accountability for the breakdown in oversight,” Patrick said in a statement.

Patrick also defended Auerbach’s overall record at the department during the past six years, calling his commitment to the common good and the people of Massachusetts unquestioned.

“While the recent developments are deeply troubling, they are not representative of the whole of John’s work or of the rest of the department,” Patrick added.

Auerbach’s decision comes as prosecutors are beginning the process of figuring out how to deal with tens of thousands of drug cases handled by the chemist. State police closed the lab late last month.

Many defense attorneys have said they will challenge the credibility of any drug tests conducted by Dookhan. And prosecutors have already begun notifying attorneys that they will hold bail hearings for defendants already serving sentences for drug offenses in cases in which Dookhan was involved, raising the possibility that convicted felons will be released while their cases are being re-examined.

State officials are worried that thousands of drug convictions could be overturned and charges in pending cases could be jeopardized because of Dookhan’s actions.

State officials have said Dookhan tested more than 60,000 drug samples covering more than 34,000 defendants during her nine years working at the lab.

State police, who took over operation of the lab from the Department of Public Health on July 1, have said they don’t know how many samples have been tainted by Dookhan.

Dookhan resigned in March, and late last week, state officials announced that one manager has been fired and another resigned in the wake of the scandal. State Attorney General Martha Coakley is conducting a criminal investigation.

Dr. Linda Han, director of the Bureau of Laboratory Sciences, resigned after being informed she faced termination, while Julie Nassif, director of the analytical chemistry division, was fired. Dookhan’s immediate supervisor, who has not been identified, faces disciplinary proceedings.

“It’s clear that the responsibility for what occurred here is not limited to simply the one analyst because there was a systemic problem that clearly was not being addressed,” said defense attorney Randy Chapman, a past president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“The difference is the allegation against the analyst was that her actions were intentional, whereas I think with the management involved at the lab, it was a question of negligent supervision.”

___

Associated Press Writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Mass. Health Commissioner resigns, cites drug lab