Personnel shakeup at troubled Mass. drug lab

Posted Sept. 13, 2012, at 10:34 p.m.

BOSTON — One manager has been fired and another has resigned as a result of the widening investigation into a Massachusetts laboratory that was closed amid allegations that tests on tens of thousands of drug samples were mishandled, state officials said Thursday.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration also released figures showing that the chemist at the center of the probe, Annie Dookhan, had done an “unusually high volume” of testing between 2004 and 2011, in some of those years performing nearly twice as many tests as the Boston lab’s second-most productive chemist.

Officials remained mum on other details of the case, citing an ongoing investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General. They would not speculate on a motive for the chemist’s actions, which could place in jeopardy thousands of convictions and pending criminal cases against drug defendants.

“I don’t know the motive for why she did this, but I don’t think it was simple sloppiness,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services JudyAnn Bigby.

Col. Timothy Alben, head of the state police, added that he believed the actions to be “criminal in nature.”

Dr. Linda Han, director of the Bureau of Laboratory Sciences since 2010, resigned after being informed she faced termination, Bigby said. Julie Nassif, director of the analytical chemistry division, was fired and a third person, identified only as Dookhan’s immediate supervisor, remained on the job but faced disciplinary proceedings.

Bigby said lab managers failed to heed signs that something was amiss.

“There were several red flags that should have been noted … but these flags were either missed or ignored,” she said.

Bigby also said it was “unacceptable” that managers of the lab waited several months before informing the commissioner of the Department of Public Health of potential problems. The agency oversaw the lab until July 1, when it was transferred to the state police under a budget directive. Patrick ordered the lab closed on Aug. 30.

Bigby said that while lab supervisors made poor decisions, she did not think their failures were intentional.

Han and Nassif could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. Messages were left for them at their homes.

Dookhan was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 1 and resigned the following month. She has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Dookhan performed more tests on drug samples than any other chemist in the lab in every year from 2004-2011, according to the figures released by the administration on Thursday.

In 2005, for example, she performed 11,232 tests, while the second most productive chemist at the lab performed 6,053 tests and the mean sampling rate for all chemists was 2,846 tests. Bigby could not explain the variance, but said chemists were not awarded salary bonuses or incentives based on the quantity of tests performed.

A chronology of events released by the administration Thursday said suspicions about the chemist first arose in June 2011 when an evidence officer at the lab noted that tests had been performed on 90 samples that had not been signed out of the evidence room, as required.

The chemist’s initials and those of an evidence officer were later seen in the log book, and the chemist admitted to adding her initials after the fact, though not those of anyone else.

The lab director claimed to have removed Dookhan from full-time testing after the incident, but Bigby said Thursday that it appears she may have continued to perform periodic testing and continued to testify in court.

A tally of Dookhan’s cases turned over by state police to defense attorneys and prosecutors shows she was involved in testing more than 60,000 drug samples covering approximately 34,000 defendants during her tenure at the lab.

Patrick has met with district attorneys and defense lawyers in recent days to discuss the potential ramifications of the tainted drug tests on criminal cases. The governor has suggested creation of a central office to sort through the information, with a priority on identifying any individuals who might be unjustly serving prison sentences.

“This is a terrible black mark for people who are in the criminal justice system,” said Secretary of Public Safety Mary Beth Heffernan.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business