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Mass. Public Health Commissioner Resigns

BOSTON — The drug evidence mishandling scandal at the state crime lab in Jamaica Plain has led to the resignation of the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, John Auerbach.

DPH ran the lab until the state transferred control of it to State Police earlier this summer. Gov. Deval Patrick shut the lab down completely two weeks ago.

David Boeri joined All Things Considered host Steve Brown to discuss the resignation.

Steve Brown: John Auerbach is on the way out, though he will stay on in the post for a few more weeks. What did Patrick and the commissioner himself say about this resignation?

David Boeri: The commissioner offered his resignation, saying the buck stops here:

It is clear that there is 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.

And the governor promptly agreed. The buck did stop with Auerbach. The governor said:

The commissioner recognizes that, as the head of DPH, he shares accountability for the breakdown in oversight.

You spoke with the commissioner’s boss, Secretary of Health and Human Services JudyAnn Bigby. What did she say about this crisis?

Secretary Bigby said:

This is an incredible failure of a system where there were some red flags that should have been noted and acted on — and they weren’t.

What specifically is she referring to in terms of red flags?

People knew there were irregularities in that lab, but they delayed telling headquarters for six months. Meanwhile, they allowed Annie Dookin — State Chemist Two, as her grade is called — to continue testing and even to testify, though the initial account had been that they had suspended her from her duties. And she testified for another seven months after she was supposedly suspended. Then, when they finally notified the district attorney that there was a problem, headquarters insisted it was a small and contained problem. That clearly wasn’t so.

What exactly did this chemist, Annie Dookin, allegedly do in terms of altering drug evidence? Is there any indication why she did it?

We’re starting to be able to put together what she did according to some limited statements — some from defense attorneys, some from district attorneys and some from reading in between the lines.

It looks as if she was altering evidence to make sure the drugs showed up as drugs and she was putting her thumb on the scale, so to speak, to add weight to samples. She also was not checking the balances properly. You have to remember: All these drug cases have a very, very strict and ordered chain of custody. The chain of custody while she was in charge of those samples was broken. She actually was taking stuff out of the locker without signing it out and then backdating her name or the initials of her associates on that stuff.

There were backlogs and a cut in overtime at the lab as well?

There are internal memos that indicate that this was a longstanding problem at that lab, going back to 2006 — a crying need for more resources. There was a nine-month backlog in testing. There was an overtime budget that was being reined in. People were complaining. They said they needed resources.

I put the question to Secretary Bigby:

Q: Frankly, do you bear any responsibility for this?

A: It’s very hard to explain why one individual would decide to purposefully mix samples, misrepresent the work that she did as a result of a budget issue.

You get the sense here that, as far as the secretary is concerned, the buck stops with Auerbach and not any higher. She continues to say this was the problem of one chemist and with people that weren’t reporting properly. She even said that, in fact, she and Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, secretary of Public Safety and Security, decided they were going to move it out since, as she said, it was the one lab without any external monitoring or standardization.

Now Auerbach is out. What does he do next?

At the same time he offers his resignation, he also announces that he has a new job at Northeastern University.

Auerbach has a very good reputation. But on the DPH website, Auerbach is asked what quote he lives by, and he answers, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That’s from Martin Luther King, Jr. The reality and the irony is there was a great deal of injustice done to this system because of what happened at that laboratory that ultimately was under his control.

Earlier Coverage:

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