The top official at the state laboratory that mishandled drug samples has resigned, and another lab executive has been fired, state law enforcement and health authorities announced Thursday, the latest development in an unfolding scandal.
The lab officials failed to detect obvious signs of problems with a chemist’s work involving drug samples from criminal cases, state executives said at a Beacon Hill press conference. They compounded that error by making the “poor decision’’ to wait six months to alert the state’s public health commissioner once problems were identified, said Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of health and human services in the Patrick administration.
“There is simply no good answer,’’ Bigby said. “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.’’
The chemist, who worked at the Jamaica Plain lab from 2003 until she quit in March, handled 60,000 samples, potentially imperiling 34,000 criminal cases. Officials have not publicly named the chemist, but authorities familiar with the investigation identified her as Annie Dookhan,
Problems with the chemist were discovered in June 2011, according to state officials, but lab directors did not bring those issues to the attention of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach until December. Auerbach’s office then launched an investigation.
Lab director Dr. Linda L. Han tendered her resignation Wednesday, while director of analytical chemistry Julie Nassif was fired. Disciplinary proceedings have begun against the chemist’s direct supervisor, whose identity was not disclosed by officials Thursday. Han and Nassif could not be reached for comment.
The news conference — which included Bigby, state Public Safety Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, and State Police Colonel Timothy Alben — left many questions unanswered because, the officials said, the state attorney general is still conducting a criminal investigation.
Exactly what Dookhan may have done wrong — and
legal consequences for the 34,000 cases tied to drug samples she tested — remains unclear. Officials have provided details about only one alleged episode involving drug mishandling by Dookhan, in June 2011.
Bigby said investigators believe that incident was not just “simple sloppiness,’’ but officials declined to elaborate.
“She has admitted to some malfeasance, and that will be an ongoing investigation, part of the attorney general’s investigation,’’ said Heffernan, the public safety secretary.
But the mystery around the drug mishandling deepened with the disclosure Thursday that Dookhan’s workload was substantially heavier than her peers’. In 2004, for example, Dookhan processed 9,239 samples while her peers on average tested 2,938 samples.
Bigby said that chemists were not paid based on output, which might have explained a motive for the huge imbalance, but she offered no explanation or a motive for the discrepancy in workload.
“These indicators should have prompted closer attention to her work,’’ Bigby said. “These are red flags that should have been caught earlier.’’
The Public Health Department operated the lab for decades until it was taken over by State Police in July. The Patrick administration proposed in January, just as it began sharing news of the problems with district attorneys in the state, that the lab’s oversight be transferred to the State Police, which operates its own drug analysis lab in Sudbury.
Bigby said the transfer was made because the State Police have the “oversight, equipment, and procedures’’ that were “more consistent with what we know we have to do in the 21st century.’’
As State Police were preparing to assume jurisdiction of the lab in July, the crime lab director for the State Police visited with Jamaica Plain lab employees. During that visit, two chemists pulled the State Police official aside to express concerns about Dookhan.
“They were concerned that she did not always follow the established protocols, and they did not want to have to testify to the validity of her work,’’ said Alben, the State Police colonel.
Alben said State Police launched a criminal investigation along with the attorney general’s office. Investigators interviewed current and former chemists at the lab and discovered that Dookhan “routinely violated’’ protocols in drug testing while handling evidence in that laboratory.
In court Wednesday, a prosecutor said Dookhan mixed drugs from unrelated criminal cases to assure positive results and manipulated evidence to increase its weight, thus potentially elevating the penalties that suspects faced.
Officials have set up a “boiler room’’ of prosecutors, defense attorneys, court officials, and others to review the thousands of cases that might be affected.
“It’s going to be labor- intensive,’’ Heffernan said. “It’s going to require a lot of resources, of literally going through folder by folder.’’
Heffernan said investigators will have to match each sample with a defendant and then go back to find the attorney who represented each defendant. The process is complicated by the fact that the Jamaica Plain lab did not use the same procedures in cataloging its records that drug labs operated by State Police use.
It would be “hard to estimate’’ how long the process might take or how much it might cost, Heffernan said. She indicated officials may ask state lawmakers for financial help.