State not investigating 17 other JP labs

September 28, 2012
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(Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira) The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute at 305 South St.

The state investigation that shut down the drug testing lab at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain is not looking into the 17 other labs in the building, which include disease control and racehorse drug testing labs.

In recent weeks, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) commissioner and the head of the 18 public labs at the Institute have resigned. The drug lab has been closed by the State Police amid concerns that a former chemist mishandled thousands of drug samples, potentially tainting many criminal cases, but the other 17 labs remain open at the Institute at 305 South St.

When asked by the Gazette if the State Police investigation is covering any of the other 17 labs, spokesperson David Procopio responded, “No. Only the former DPH drug lab there.”

He said that the State Police only took over the drug lab and that the Gazette would have to ask DPH about the other labs.

“Our investigation focuses only on transgressions at the drug lab that tested samples for criminal cases,” said Procopio. “My understanding is that the personnel actions were taken in response to oversight of one particular chemist at that one particular lab.”

When the Gazette questioned DPH why the investigation did not cover the 17 other labs, spokesperson Alec Loftus replied, “[The investigation] has been turned over to law enforcement and any questions about the investigation, or scope should be directed to State Police.”

The Gazette pressed Loftus about how the public could have faith in the work of the 17 others labs. He responded with the following press conference quote from Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, the state secretary of human services:

“The department overall, as well as the rest of the 17 labs at the Hinton Laboratory, are well-known and respected for the work that they do. They have responded to many crises, including H1N1, West Nile, EEE [Eastern equine encephalitis]—and they do it in the most professional and competent way,” she said.

DPH Commissioner John Auerbach, a Jamaica Plain resident, resigned Sept. 17 amid the growing scandal.

“It is clear that there was insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigating on the part of supervisors and managers surrounding the former Department of Public Health drug lab in Jamaica Plain–and ultimately, as commissioner, the buck stops with me,” said Auerbach in a press release. “What happened at the drug lab was unacceptable and the impact on people across the state may be devastating, particularly for some within the criminal justice system.”

It was announced the week before that Dr. Linda Han, who oversaw all 18 public labs at the Institute as director of Bureau of Laboratory Sciences, resigned. Julie Nassif, who served as the director of the analytic chemistry division, was fired. Disciplinary proceedings for the former chemist’s direct supervisor have begun.

The exact administrative structure of the various labs at the Institute is unclear and Loftus did not directly answer a question about it. The Bureau of Laboratory Sciences, which Han headed, is specifically the disease-testing lab. That is separate from the drug testing lab. But it appears Han had some supervision of both departments.

According to the State Lab website, the various departments within the building include the disease-testing and former drug-testing labs; the DPH’s Mass. Food Protection Program; the DPH’s Mass. Infectious Disease Bureau; the State Racing Commission Laboratory for testing racehorses for doping; the University of Massachusetts’s New England Newborn Screening Program; UMass’s Biologic Laboratories, a nonprofit that makes vaccines and other substances; and the National Laboratory Training Network. According to its website, that latter program is intended to improve the skills of lab workers and “promote excellence in laboratory practice.”

The Institute is also used for community meetings, including for the Casey Arborway project.

Several cases have already been impacted by the drug lab scandal. One case is that of David Huffman, who had his conviction on gun and drug charges stayed, according to a Suffolk County District Attorney press release.

But DA spokesperson Jake Wark did say that the “Operation Rodeo” drug busts, which took down JP’s violent Boylston Street gang, had happened after the disgraced chemist had left the lab.

John Ruch contributed to this article.

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