EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 14, 2012

Two out, third official may be fired at state lab

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — The bureau chief of the state crime lab at the center of a controversy over the alleged mishandling of drug samples has resigned, a previously suspended lab director has been fired and the Patrick administration has begun “discharge proceedings” against a third crime lab supervisor.

Health and Human Services Secretary Judy Ann Bigby, Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan and State Police Colonel Timothy Alben yesterday provided the greatest detail to date of how more than 60,000 drug samples at a state crime lab in Jamaica Plain may have been tainted by a rogue chemist leading to the shakeup.

Lab Bureau Chief Dr. Linda Han resigned on Wednesday, while the director of the analytical chemistry division at the Department Public Health, Dr. Julie Nassif, was fired for their roles in a massive tampering case that Bigby attributed in part to lax oversight and an “unacceptable delay” in notifying superiors.

The state has also begun proceedings to dismiss the chemist’s direct supervisor, who is a member of civil service. Officials declined to identify him.

Suspicion of the testing being conducted by chemist Annie Dookhan first surfaced in June 2011 when an evidence officer noticed that tests had been performed on 90 drug samples that had never been signed out of the evidence room, breaking the chain of custody. Nassif was notified of the breach in protocol, but she did not immediately inform superiors at the Department of Public Health, according to a chronology provided by state officials.

Days later, upon further inspection of the log book, officials found that Dookhan had added her initials and those of others to the sign-out sheet after the fact. Though she was immediately removed from full-time testing duties, Bigby said her office has since learned Dookhan continued to perform periodic testing and testify in court.

“The fact is the chemist violated the public trust in choosing to do what she did. She’s responsible for her actions. But the management at the lab also failed,” Bigby said.

Bigby said there were “red flags” that should have prompted closer scrutiny, but said the warning signs were either missed or ignored by supervisors.

Since Gov. Deval Patrick ordered the William A. Hinton Laboratory shut down two weeks ago, state officials have been working with prosecutors, defense attorneys, the courts and the departments of probation and parole to try to determine how Dookhan’s actions may have impacted justice in 34,000 cases she worked on since 2003.

State Police Colonel Timothy Alben said that when the State Police crime lab director visited the lab in preparation for taking over the operation of the facility two chemists approached the director to express concern that Dookhan had “routinely violated protocol.”

Neither Alben nor Heffernan would confirm reports that Dookhan was allegedly altering drug samples to produce positive tests or to increase the weights of the samples, which could carry harsher penalties in court. Both said that was the subject of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s criminal investigation.