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Former inmate’s $5.7M lawsuit sheds light on Amherst Drug Lab scandal

  • U.S. District Court in Springfield, April 12, 2016 GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



@ecutts_HG
Friday, September 15, 2017

A $5.7 million lawsuit filed in federal court in Springfield last week sheds new light on the inner workings of the now-defunct Amherst Drug Lab and alleges failings of numerous state offices, a local police department and an entire municipality.

“This is a case about government corruption,” begins the 57-page lawsuit filed by Northampton attorney Luke Ryan on behalf of plaintiff Rolando Penate, of Springfield, in U.S. District Court.

The corruption, Penate alleges in the lawsuit, was widespread and led to his imprisonment for 5 years, 7 months and 12 days on a conviction of distribution of a class A substance. That conviction was ultimately dismissed in June in a 127-page ruling by Hampden Superior Court Judge Richard Carey.

Assistant attorney generals, Massachusetts State Police officers, state Department of Public Health chemists, leaders within DPH, Springfield Police and the city of Springfield are all alleged to have taken part in “multiple, overlapping conspiracies to suppress highly exculpatory evidence,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit details scandals and alleged failings at the state’s DPH labs, the attorney general’s office and the Springfield Police Department.

“I think the allegations we have made in it tell a pretty disturbing tale,” Ryan said.

In all, 16 people, the estate of a deceased Springfield Police officer and the city of Springfield are being sued as part of the suit, which seeks $5,712,000 in damages for the “great pain of mind and body” Penate suffered as a result of his imprisonment.

Ryan said the intent of such lawsuits is also to bring some type of systematic change.

“If the government is forced to pay people for harming them then they will in the future be less likely to permit practices that led to the harm,” Ryan said.

Inner workings

While the actions of former assistant attorneys general Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster and former Amherst Drug Lab chemist Sonja Farak, all named in the suit, earlier raised Carey’s ire as detailed in his June ruling, the civil suit sheds more light on the inner workings of the offices that handled cases by Farak. A third assistant attorney general, Randall Ravitz, is also named in the suit.

The lawsuit alleges multiple occasions on which Farak’s supervisor, James Hanchett, had a “laissez faire approach to lab management.” He allegedly overlooked the potential for wrongdoing in his lab, including an incorrect assumption that a bottle of methamphetamine oil was degrading rather than being tampered with in an attempt to hide theft, the lawsuit states.

In another incident, Hanchett confronted Farak about a beaker with liquid and white residue left in a drawer, according to the suit. When Farak “feigned ignorance, Hanchett decided another co-worker must have brought her daughter to the lab and did a science experiment involving the beaker.”

Penate alleges that Farak’s colleague Sharon Salem should have known the state police sergeant’s transportation-of-drugs practices increased the likelihood of cross-contamination or tampering, and that Farak was manipulating the system to get pieces of evidence she wanted to analyze.

The lawsuit alleges that Hanchett and Salem, along with two DPH directors — Julie Nassif and Linda Han — provided “inadequate training, ineffective supervision, and no discipline to Amherst Drug Lab chemists” and were “deliberately indifferent” to Penate’s constitutional rights.

Carey’s ruling in June had found that Hanchett and Salem “were capable and diligent employees who worked under challenging conditions, without adequate security, supervision, mandatory protocols or optimal materials.”

Mental health worksheets

Three Massachusetts State Police officers — Joseph Ballou, Robert Irwin and Randy Thomas — are accused of individually and together conspiring to cover up and lie to Hampden County district attorneys about the existence of mental health worksheets found in Farak’s car when police arrested her.

Carey ruled in June that Foster and Kaczmarek intentionally withheld the worksheets Farak filled out for her therapist, which showed her drug tampering began much earlier than was revealed in court proceedings.

Four Springfield Police officers — John Wadlegger, Gregg Bigda, Edward Kalish and Steven Kent — as well as the estate of deceased officer Kevin Burnham are named in the suit.

The four living officers are alleged to have covered up and lied to Hampden County assistant district attorneys about Burnham, who was accused of stealing more than $400,000. Following his death, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office dropped the larceny charges against Burnham. Burnham also allegedly improperly sealed samples he brought for testing to the Amherst Drug Lab.

The city of Springfield is accused of, among other things, failing to investigate Burnham, which led the officer to “believe he could steal, misappropriate, and manufacture evidence with impunity.”

‘Wet paper bag’

Andrew J. Gambaccini, the attorney for Springfield Police Officer Steven Kent, said his client will file a motion to dismiss the claims against him.

It was not immediately known how many of the defendants have been officially served. Gambaccini is the only attorney named in court filing representing a defendant.

“If that claim was trapped in a wet paper bag, it would not be able to fight its way out of the wet paper bag,” Gambaccini said of the allegations against Kent.

In response, Ryan said, “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Springfield City Solicitor Edward M. Pikula said a response would be prepared once the city had been served.

Massachusetts State Police did not return a written request for comment.

Penate was arrested after allegedly selling a substance believed to be heroin to undercover Springfield police officers on three occasions.

It was later learned that some of the money supposedly taken from Penate and introduced into evidence during his trial was not in circulation at the time of the seizure.

Elaine Pourinski, Farak’s attorney in the criminal case, said she is not representing Farak in the federal suit and could not speak to it specifically.

“I would just say that drug addiction is an illness. It can’t be considered an illness sometimes and not an illness at other times,” Pourinski said in a statement. “She was not accused of adding drugs to fake drugs. She was accused of taking drugs from real drugs.”

Pourinski added that Farak has done “all she could to take responsibility for her actions and to try to make it right.”

“It’s unfortunate that she has been lumped together with some others who are accused of intentionally harming defendants,” she said.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.