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Amid Crime Lab Crisis, DPH Commissioner Resigns

Tendering his resignation, Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach on Monday accepted responsibility for the failed oversight of a state crime lab chemist accused of mishandling evidence at a Jamaica Plain lab, claiming "the buck stops with me."

Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday accepted Auerbach's resignation, which was offered over the weekend, making him the latest and highest-ranking official to either resign or lose their job as a result of the unfolding crisis at the state crime lab where as many as 60,000 drug samples, representing 34,000 criminal cases, may have been compromised.

"It is clear that there was insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigation 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," Auerbach said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

Auerbach said he offered his resignation with “deep regret and a sense of responsibility to uphold the high ideals Governor Patrick demands,” and plans to continue to work with investigators to “make sure we find answers.” Auerbach first came to the Patrick administration in early 2007 after more than nine years as Boston public health commissioner under Mayor Thomas Menino.

"What happened at the drug lab was unacceptable and the impact on people across the state may be devastating, particularly for some within the criminal justice system," Auerbach said.

According to a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Auerbach will remain on probably for a couple of weeks to assist with the transition. It was unclear who would take over as commissioner on an acting or permanent basis.

Auerbach, meanwhile, has already accepted a position at Northeastern University and will start in November at the Bouve School of Health Sciences as director of the Urban Health Research Institute and a professor of practice.

"The failures at the Department of Public Health drug lab are serious and the actions and inactions of lab management compounded the problem. The Commissioner recognizes that, as the head of DPH, he shares accountability for the breakdown in oversight," Gov. Patrick said in a statement.

Patrick said it “saddens me” to have accepted Auerbach’s resignation and wished him well. "While the recent developments are deeply troubling, they are not representative of the whole of John’s work or of the rest of the Department. For the past six years, John has run a department that improved public health and wellness. His and his colleagues’ commitment to the common good and the people of Massachusetts is unquestioned," Patrick said.

Auerbach was unavailable to comment on Monday, according to a spokesman, but he planned to attend a meeting of the Public Health Council on Wednesday morning.

Since Gov. Patrick ordered the William A. Hinton Laboratory shut down two weeks ago, state officials have been working with prosecutors, defense attorneys, the courts and the departments of probation and parole to try to determine how chemist Annie Dookhan's actions may have impacted the 34,000 cases she worked on since 2003.

Though officials have declined to detail Dookhan’s exact transgressions, prosecutors and defense attorneys have suggested the chemist may have altered drug samples to produce positive tests or increase their weights.

Public Safety Secretary MaryBeth Heffernan said last week that officials hope to set up a "central office" to begin the effort of investigating the history of each sample. She said the state would look to hire someone outside of state government to lead the effort that could result in prisoners being released from jail or having sentences reduced.

Suspicion of the testing being conducted by chemist Annie Dookhan first surfaced in June 2011 when an evidence officer at the DPH-run crime lab noticed that tests had been performed on 90 drug samples that had never been signed out of the evidence room, breaking the chain of custody.

The State Police have taken over the investigation into what happened at the crime lab, and last week State Police Colonel Timothy Alben said Dookhan had admitted to “several types of behavior."

"The behaviors of the drug lab chemist and the failure to properly manage and supervise her work are unacceptable. But I know they do not represent the work of the rest of the staff at the Department of Public Health. My colleagues take seriously their responsibility to help make Massachusetts a better place to live and are as upset with what happened as everybody else," Auerbach said in his statement.

Lab Bureau Chief Dr. Linda Han resigned last Wednesday, while the director of the analytical chemistry division at the Department Public Health, Dr. Julie Nassif, was fired for her role in failing to properly oversee Dookhan’s work or immediately notify superiors.

The administration has also begun proceeding to fire Dookhan’s direct supervisor, who is a member of civil service.

This article was originally published on September 17, 2012.

This program aired on September 17, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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