Drug lab report: 1 ‘bad actor,’ many bad mistakes

By Peter Shanley and John Ruch/Gazette Staff

A 15-month investigation by state Inspector General Glenn Cunha has found that former chemist Annie Dookhan acted alone in the state drug lab scandal of 2012, according to a final report issued March 4.

While calling Dookhan the “sole bad actor” at the troubled drug lab, the scathing report did criticize the environment she worked in for lacking management oversight and not having ethical standards. It also raises questions about the overall reliability of the lab’s work.

Dookhan was caught deliberately mishandling evidence in thousands of criminal cases at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain and lying about holding a master’s degree in 2012. She is serving a five-year prison sentence.

The drug-evidence lab at the State Lab, which is located at 305 South St., was shut down and remains closed, its work moved to another facility operated by the State Police outside Boston. But 17 other labs operate within the State Lab building. Their work includes testing suspected bioterrorism materials, checking racehorses for doping, and examining animals for rabies and West Nile Virus.

Those other labs are not directly addressed by the report, but the Inspector General indicated concerns with general employee supervision and background checks.

The report describes Dookhan as enabled by management failures at every level. State officials dithered without action for years over the underfunded, unaccredited drug lab and a decade-old proposal to move it under supervision of state public safety agencies. Inside the lab, Dookhan was supervised by “weak, absent managers who had no forensic experience or training,” the report says.

When Dookhan’s wrongdoing was detected in 2011, various officials—including former Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach, a JP resident—conducted only a limited investigation and did not immediately alert the courts or higher officials, the report says.

In early 2012, the Governor’s Office and other agencies devised a “Drug Lab Outreach Plan” to reveal the Dookhan scandal to other agencies and to the public through the media. That plan deliberately minimized the case and omitted known information about the breadth of accusations against Dookhan, the report says, apparently out of public relations or lab funding concerns.

The report found that besides Dookhan, no other chemist “intentionally falsified his or her results.” But it does seriously question the reliability of the testing methods used by all chemists there. The report also uncovered another chemist who claimed on her resume to hold a degree she did not.

Security at the building and how Dookhan circumvented it are described in the report. The drug lab’s evidence room was secured with a high-tech biometric handprint-reader, but that could be bypassed with a simple normal key, which everyone did, according to the report. The report has one inaccuracy in saying that State Lab visitors must be escorted at all times inside the building. People who attend public meetings there walk around unescorted after signing in, as the Gazette has experienced dozens of times over many years.

Cunha issued several recommendations, as summed up in the press release:

  • All state agencies should employ management practices that hold supervisors accountable for their employees.
  • The State Police should continue to handle the forensic drug testing that the Hinton lab previously handled.
  • Forensic drug chemist should receive training in drug analysis, expert witness testimony and ethics.
  • All employees of forensic drug labs should be subjected to random drug tests and annual criminal record checks.

Meanwhile, according to the report, courts are still reviewing drug cases handled by Dookhan, and a huge backlog of drug testing causes many new cases to be dismissed and leaves police evidence lockers at capacity.

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