Outgoing Mass. Official Addresses Drug Lab Shutdown

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Outgoing state public health Commissioner John Auerbach says it appears a “rogue chemist” is to blame for the scandal that closed a state crime lab in Jamaica Plain.

Auerbach made his first public comments to reporters Wednesday since he resigned over the scandal earlier this week.

Auerbach says he won't accept responsibility for the chemist who's accused of mishandling drug samples. But he says he is ultimately responsible for oversight of the entire department.

“I accept no responsibility for actions of a rogue chemist,” he said. “But I do think the managers erred in lacking proper oversight of the forensic drug lab and in the way the June 2011 incident was handled. But at the Department of Public Health, the buck stops with me.”

Auerbach says in June 2011, lab supervisors fired chemist Annie Dookhan after it was discovered that she mishandled evidence in criminal drug cases. He says DPH administrators didn’t learn about that until six months later and they thought it was an isolated incident. Auerbach hired an investigator, who affirmed that the problem was not widespread.

But, Auerbach says, when state police took over the crime lab a short time later, they found that the evidence mishandling was even more widespread. Some have estimated that more than 30,000 criminal cases might be affected.

"What this has caused for the DAs and attorneys and the possibility that justice was not served — I'm furious at that," he said.

Although several emails have come to light suggesting the crime lab was severely short-staffed and under-resourced, Auerbach says budgetary concerns were not an issue.

“The last five years the state of the economy has affected everybody, so everybody had to tighten,” Auerbach said. “Budgets were reduced across the country, but that should never be an excuse for lack of oversight in a critical function like the drug lab.”

Auerbach will stay on for the next few weeks to help with the transition to an interim commissioner and to help with the investigation into the scandal.

He will then take a post at Northeastern University.

This article was originally published on September 19, 2012.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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