Prosecutors await fallout from Amherst drug lab tampering
Sonja Farak, left, of Northampton stands during her arraignment at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, on Tuesday. Farak is charged with stealing drugs and tampering with evidence while working as a chemist in the State Crime Lab in Amherst. Farak pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo) Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said he has requested a full audit of all drug evidence at the now-closed state crime lab in Amherst going back at least a year after a lab chemist was charged this week with tampering with evidence and drug possession.
Drugs still missing from the lab or tampered with are likely to affect the disposition of several cases in the region and could affect some past convictions. Both Sullivan and Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni said this week that they expect the investigation under way at the lab to take a long time.
“We don’t really know what the extent is of what she was doing,” Sullivan said Thursday. “We’re assuming that she took drugs that would fall into our jurisdiction.”
Sullivan was referring to state chemist Sonja J. Farak, 35, of Northampton, who pleaded innocent to two counts of tampering with evidence and cocaine and heroin possession charges in Eastern Hampshire District Court Tuesday. Farak, who lives in Laurel Park, was released on $5,000 bail and her next court date is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Mastroianni told news reporters this week that the situation has already affected the prosecution of cases in Springfield, where Farak regularly testified as a witness in court when drugs were involved.
“It’s a big black cloud over this lab,” Sullivan said. “It’s a lab that’s done very good work over the years.”
Farak started working for the state crime labs in 2002, only a few years after she left Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a degree in biochemistry. She began working at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain before transferring to the state lab in Amherst, where she earned approximately $59,000 in 2011, according to state payroll records. The lab is at the Morrill Science Center complex at the University of Massachusetts.
State Police assumed control of the Jamaica Plain and Amherst labs last July after it was revealed that another chemist, Annie Dookhan, 35, of Franklin, was allegedly faking test results. The revelation has thrown thousands of criminal cases into question and led to the release of nearly 200 people who had been convicted of crimes based on Dookhan’s work. Dookhan was arrested in September and faces more than a dozen charges, including evidence tampering, obstruction of justice and perjury. The case is still unfolding.
Eleven chemists who worked at the Jamaica Plain lab remain on paid administrative leave, while two chemists and a supervisor who worked alongside Farak in Amherst are reporting to the state police’s main drug lab in Sudbury, which has a large backlog of drug cases.
“These two cases that we’re dealing with ... they’re both out of the ordinary and both were discovered by good state employees,” said Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, the union representing the lab workers. “It’s the way it’s supposed to work.”
In the case of the Amherst lab, a chemist and longtime supervisor had discovered that drug samples Farak had analyzed in two cases were missing, both of which had tested positive for cocaine. A further review of her work station turned up what appeared to be various controlled substances and paraphernalia that were stored in a way that violated lab protocols. The chemists contacted authorities and a state police investigation now overseen by the state attorney general’s office turned up cocaine and heroin in Farak’s car last week on a day when she was waiting to testify in court in Springfield in a criminal case. Police also discovered several empty crime lab packages used to store controlled substances, according to a criminal complaint.
“Our understanding is, she was taking drugs out of the evidence bags after they had been tested,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to take some time for them to sort out what’s there and what isn’t there. Anything going into court is going to need to be retested.”
He said his office, which covers Hampshire and Franklin counties and the town of Athol, intends to be transparent with information on the lab investigation and how it might affect past cases or future prosecutions.
“The public needs to know,” he said. “It will be a case-by-case review.”
In the wake of Farak’s arrest, Sullivan said it was news to him that the state’s drug lab workers are not subject to random drug screenings. Such tests could prevent chemists from the temptation of using drugs in the labs, or at least detect use while it is happening, he said.
“It’s as ludicrous as one can imagine not to have drug testing of a chemist testing drugs in a lab,” he said. “There’s no excuse for it.”
Dorant, president of the union representing the chemists, said the issue of drug screenings for the state’s lab workers has never come up during contract negotiations. He said such screenings would be a “quick and easy solution” to the larger problem of underfunded and understaffed labs with better accreditation standards.
“It may not have prevented either occurrence,” Dorant said.
Dorant said his organization is cooperating and working closely with state authorities, including the state inspector general’s office as it conducts a comprehensive investigation of the operations of the closed labs, which were formerly under the state Department of Public Health.
He said the 11 chemists still on leave from the Jamaica Plain lab should be allowed to return to work, as the Amherst lab chemists have been able to do at the state police crime lab in Sudbury. Some are occasionally testifying in court and none has been implicated in any way in the Dookhan case, he said.
“They want to go back to work,” Dorant said. “I don’t see any reason why they can’t go back to work and take care of this enormous (case) backlog. It’s over 10,000 cases.”
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.