By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON - Facing questions from lawmakers, a top Patrick administration official said yesterday there were no clear answers yet to the fundamental question of how a former state lab chemist was able to get away for so long with evidence tampering that has jeopardized as many as 34,000 criminal drug cases.
“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 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 on Wednesday asked the court to postpone a pre-trial date set for Dec. 3 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.
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.
Bigby 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properly investigated,” and told lawmakers her review of the lab uncovered “serious lapses in oversight,” including outdated operational procedures and a failure of supervisors to properly monitor their subordinates.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.