Chemist at crime lab in Amherst charged with tampering with drug evidence

With the state court system reeling from Annie Dookhan’s alleged misdeeds at the now-shuttered drug lab in Jamaica Plain, a second chemist at a crime lab in Amherst is being charged with tampering with drug evidence, authorities announced today.

The allegations in the case against Sonja Farak, 35, of Northampton, are vastly different than those in the Dookhan matter, Attorney General Martha Coakley told reporters this afternoon.

While Dookhan is accused of falsely certifying that she completed tests of suspected drug samples after a mere visual examination, Farak allegedly tested two samples—one believed to be heroin and one cocaine—early this month and then replaced the drugs with counterfeit substances, Coakley said.

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She said Farak tested the samples Jan. 2 and Jan. 8, and officials are still trying to determine when her alleged theft of drugs, apparently for personal use, began. For now, she said, Farak is only being charged in the two cases.

And while the Dookhan scandal could affect thousands of cases and has already resulted in the release of scores of convicted drug dealers and defendants awaiting trial, Coakley said today that authorities have found no evidence that defendants’ due process rights were violated in the Amherst cases.

Asked if defense lawyers in those cases may have grounds to seek dismissals of the charges, Coakley said, “I’m sure there will be actions by defense counsel around this, ” but said the testing was not invalidated in any way.

Farak was arrested Saturday night and is facing charges of tampering with evidence, possession of a class A substance, and possession of a class B substance, according to Coakley’s office.

She was held on $75,000 cash bail, Coakley said, and is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Eastern Hampshire District Court. It was not immediately clear if she had posted bail as of today, or who is representing her.

A working telephone number for Farak could not be located.

Coakley said the alleged theft of the drugs was discovered Thursday when Farak’s supervisors were making a routine check of certifications of the two samples she had tested and were unable to locate them.

They went to Farak’s work area, Coakley said, and found “certain substances ... that appeared to be drugs and on further examination appeared to be counterfeit drugs.”

“We have no reason to believe that there was sale or distribution involved,” of the substances, Coakley said.

Coakley could not say how much contraband Farak allegedly stole.

“They’re fairly small [quantities], and we are still determining what the size was,” she said.

While the Amherst lab performs tests on suspected drug samples for cases in the western part of the state, Coakley could not identify the jurisdictions of the two cases at issue.

She added that Farak began her career at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, where Dookhan worked, in 2002 before moving to the Amherst lab two years later.

Massachusetts State Police Colonel Timothy P. Alben said during the news conference that the Amherst lab will temporarily close while troopers investigate, and its operations will be transferred to a State Police lab in Sudbury.

State Police took over the Hinton and Amherst labs in July in response to the Dookhan scandal. They were previously run by the state Department of Public Health.

“There is a clear distinction between [Dookhan] and [Farak],” Alben said. “We think that those practices that the State Police put in play, if you will ... actually contributed to the early detection of this particular case over the last few days.”

Coakley said the alleged actions of Farak are not without precedent.

“In my 25 years as a prosecutor, both state and federal, I have seen prosecutors, police, even defense lawyers who have in some way, because of the lure of [illicit drugs] ... fail in way that has been tragic,” she said.

Coakley said such failures have forced officials “to develop systems to make sure if that happens, someone with an official responsibility violates that trust by using drugs or taking drugs, that we identify it as soon as possible.”

Coakley and Alben said there are indications that Farak’s supervisors spoke to her about a drop in productivity in November, but they could not elaborate.

Dookhan, by contrast, was noted for her staggering productivity, allegedly for cutting corners during testing.

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan, whose office handles cases in Hampshire and Franklin counties, called the charges against Farak disturbing.

“Our office has already commenced an internal assessment of how many criminal prosecutions, both past and present, may be jeopardized by this chemist’s alleged wrongdoing,” Sullivan said in a statement. “If any cases are discovered in which the integrity of the drug evidence may have been compromised, we will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that justice is done.”

Kimberly Haberlin, a spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick, said in a statement that Farak’s arrest is “a serious situation that the Massachusetts State Police and Attorney General detected and acted on immediately.”

“Since its transfer to State Police last July, the lab was subject to and passed numerous state and federal audits,” Haberlin said. “As the Attorney General said earlier today, at this point the allegations against this chemist do not call into question testing reliability or fairness to defendants. The Governor has been briefed by Colonel Alben and Executive Office of Public Safety and Security officials and our office will continue to coordinate with the State Police and Attorney General as the investigation continues.”

Michael O’Keefe, top prosecutor for the Cape and Islands and the president of Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said in a phone interview that prior to the July takeover by State Police, the Hinton and Amherst labs had fewer safeguards in place to guard against potential abuses of the system.

The district attorneys affected will examine whether Farak’s arrest has implications for any of the prosecutions under their jurisdiction, O’Keefe said.

“And we’ll continue to work with our partner agencies around the Commonwealth to ensure that the rights of defendants are protected, as well as [the interests of] public safety,” he said.

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