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Future cloudy for thousands of drug cases tested by Sonja Farak, records show tampering went on for nearly nine years



Thursday, July 09, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — Sonja J. Farak told a nurse at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee in December 2013 that she used methamphetamines and other stimulants “whenever she could get her hands on them.” And since her job as a chemist was to test drug samples at a state drug lab in Amherst, that opportunity came daily.

According to medical records made public in Hampden Superior Court last month, Farak’s drug use was not an existing problem exacerbated by her access to illegal substances at the Amherst lab. Instead, her addiction only began when she was hired at the lab in 2004, she reported during her intake at the jail.

The results of that intake interview and notes from several of Farak’s therapists — all detailing Farak’s drug use going back years — were obtained by defense attorneys on behalf of clients who are seeking new trials on the basis that Farak tampered with the samples that were used as evidence to convict them.

Records dating to 2009 show that, at various points between 2009 and 2012, Farak used cocaine, crack cocaine or methamphetamines daily or almost daily while at work, and also used ketamine, MDMA, ecstasy, phentermine, amphetamines, LSD, and marijuana.

Farak, 37, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and several drug charges in 2014. She was sentenced to 18 months in jail and has since been released, but the attorney general’s office continues to investigate the matter. Retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Peter Velis has been appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General to “provide an independent and external view on the investigation,” a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said this week.

Records detail history of drug use

Northampton attorney Luke Ryan, who lobbied for the release of evidence and records to prove that his client and others should get new trials, said it is now clear that Farak’s tampering went on for her entire career at the Amherst Lab.

While there were a “few red flags” early on, Ryan said he was only able to obtain evidence to prove his theory in 2014. He said he repeatedly argued that he should be able to view evidence collected from Farak’s car after her arrest, but the attorney general’s office said the only documents in the car were lab records which were not relevant to his client’s drug conviction — and that allowing him to view the evidence could impact the ongoing case against Farak.

His client, Rolando Penate, was convicted in December 2013 on one count of distributing heroin and sentenced to five to seven years in prison. He is now requesting a new trial.

After Farak pleaded guilty, Ryan said, the attorney general’s office agreed to let him review the evidence from Farak’s car. In addition to lab documents, he found diary cards Farak filled out as part of her treatment with ServiceNet. They appeared to date to 2010 and 2011, and to describe her taking drugs at work.

On Dec. 22, 2011, Ryan said, Farak wrote on a diary card, “tried to resist using @ work, but ended up failing.” That is the day records show that she tested evidence from Penate’s case.

The diary cards led Ryan to request mental health records from ServiceNet and several of Farak’s former therapists, as well as the intake interview from the jail.

While the records were initially provided but sealed for privacy, Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder ruled June 9 that the records should be unsealed because they contain information that could be important to other defendants or convicts whose cases involved evidence tested by Farak.

Among the records are notes from Amherst-based therapist Anna Kogan, who treated Farak in 2009 and 2010. “She obtains the drugs from her job at the state drug lab, by taking portions of samples that have come in to be tested,” Kogan wrote of her client.

Farak, who suffered from depression, told her therapist she had tried methamphetamines once at her previous job at another lab — but “didn’t get much from it.”

“After moving to western Mass. for her job at the state drug lab, she tried it again and ‘really liked it. I felt euphoric,’” Kogan wrote of Farak. She wrote that her client “thought it gave her energy, helped her to ‘get things done and not procrastinate,’ feel more positive.”

Farak also worried about her wife finding out about her drug use, and potential “legal problems” if she were caught, Kogan noted. In August 2009, she wrote, Farak said she had a “close call” when, with drugs in her vehicle, she was pulled over by a police officer for having a tail light out.

She was determined to resist using drugs on her own, Kogan wrote, and resistant to the idea of a residential or outpatient treatment program.

While she sought therapy and treatment to get clean on and off starting in 2009, her longest period of sobriety while she worked at the lab was five months, she said in the jail intake interview. She occasionally went on week-long “binges” of hallucinogen or cocaine use, her therapists noted.

State investigation continues

The details about Farak’s drug use at work contradicts what state officials initially said when Farak was arrested in January 2013. Officials at that time indicated there was evidence she tampered with the drugs beginning in July 2012, and only after she had sufficiently tested each substance. “On its face, the allegations against this chemist do not implicate the reliability of testing done or fairness to defendants,” Martha Coakley, then the attorney general, said in a statement at the time.

Ryan said Monday it is unclear when — or if — the attorney general’s office became aware of evidence that Farak’s drug use and tampering dated to 2004.

He said that of the 29,000 lab tests Farak reportedly completed, a reasonable estimate of how many could be impacted by unreliable testing is 10,000.

“There’s reasonable information she may have been into her coworkers’ samples,” Ryan said Monday. “This could be significantly more than 10,000.”

The attorney general’s office is leading an ongoing investigation into the issue, according to spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis.

“We are especially troubled whenever the integrity of the justice system is threatened and therefore have sought the very best to lead our investigation into the scope and timing of Sonja Farak’s actions at the Amherst drug lab,” Gotsis said in a statement Tuesday, noting Velis’s appointment to lead the investigation.

Ryan said he hopes the investigation will answer one big question he has — whether the attorney general’s office did not know the therapy diary cards were in the car, or if officials knowingly withheld that information. At that time, the office under Martha Coakley was maintaining that law enforcement had very quickly caught Farak’s mishandling of evidence, so it had an interest in not disclosing records that she had tampered with drugs for years.

“Our position all along is that the attorney general’s office has a huge conflict of interest,” he said.

Impact on defendants

Ryan said it is uncertain what will happen next for those thousands of defendants — many of whom are incarcerated and have no idea how Farak’s case will affect them.

“I think only a fraction of the affected parties are aware of their rights,” Ryan said.

Many were represented at trial by public defenders, but it would take the Committee for Public Counsel Services significant resources to simply contact those defendants — to say nothing for what would happen if thousands of new trials had to be scheduled.

Ryan said he has “serious doubts” that state officials will be able to properly investigate and address the situation without budgeting additional funding. “As far as I know, no one’s gone to legislators to get more money for this,” he said.

Ryan said it is “helpful” to compare the handling of Farak’s case to the case of Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the former Hinton drug lab in Jamaica Plains who admitted to falsifying results.

In the wake of the Dookhan scandal, then-governor Deval Patrick allocated $30 million for a full investigation, Ryan said. That amount included funding for a special investigator to look at systemic problems and to create a list of the 40,000 defendants whose samples were tested by Dookhan and contact them about their options.

Almost three years after Dookhan’s arrest, only 8,700 of those defendants have been assigned lawyers, Ryan said.

“And in this case, we don’t even have a list,” he said. “This is a statewide problem, finding these people.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.