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District Attorney: 'Cloud Of Doubt Remains' Over Mass. Drug Lab Scandal

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan. (Steven Senne/AP)
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan. (Steven Senne/AP)

A new controversy in Massachusetts' drug lab scandals cropped up this week, with a district attorney sending a sharply worded letter questioning the state's investigation into the actions of a disgraced chemist.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan wrote that, despite a $6 million investigation into the scandal, "a cloud of doubt remains" about former chemist Sonja Farak and her work at the former Hinton Lab in Boston.

Farak was sentenced to 18 months in prison after her 2014 conviction on charges of tampering with — and personally using — drug evidence when she worked at the Amherst lab. Ryan said the state did not conclude that Farak did not also tamper with evidence when she worked at the Hinton lab, just before she went to Amherst.

Her letter was sent to Gov. Charlie Baker, State Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas Turco and Inspector General General Glen Cunha, who oversaw the state investigation. That review focused on misconduct at the Hinton lab by former chemist Annie Dookhan, who was convicted of tampering with drug evidence in 2013 and served three years in prison.

"In its report, the OIG stated that it did a 'top to bottom' investigation and concluded that Annie Dookhan 'was the sole bad actor,' " Ryan's letter said. "Although this suggests by negative implication that the OIG concluded that Farak had not engaged in misconduct at the Hinton Lab, the OIG has not stated this expressly nor has it specifically explained how its investigation ruled out misconduct by Farak."

Saying he did not want to "engage in a battle of letters," Inspector General Cunha nonetheless accused Ryan of making misstatements and omitting facts. He said the OIG did a thorough investigation, and Farak's misconduct came to light later in 2015, when Farak testified under immunity about her drug use.

"My office has stated repeatedly that other than Annie Dookhan, the Hinton Lab investigation did not find evidence that any other chemist committed any malfeasance with respect to evidence testing," Cunha's letter said. "These statements do not merely include Farak by negative implication; they are affirmative statements about the investigation’s findings. The Hinton Lab investigation did not uncover any evidence to question Farak’s productivity or to suspect her of misconduct."

Tens of thousands of criminal cases were dismissed because of the misconduct by both Farak and Dookhan, and Ryan in her letter said thousands more cases are potentially affected. She pointed to a recently vacated drug conviction as an example.

Statewide, there are questions about more than 9,700 convictions based on Farak's testing at the Hinton lab, according to Ryan, including more than 1,600 cases in Middlesex County. Cunha called those numbers "exaggerated," and said he's preparing a fuller response to Ryan.

Farak and Dookhan both worked at the Hinton lab in 2003 and 2004. Dookhan's high volume of testing suggested that she could not have properly tested all the evidence samples she claimed.

Ryan said there should have been concerns about Farak’s work at the Hinton Lab, particularly because Farak’s testing numbers were comparable to Dookhan’s and because of evidence that Farak’s use of illegal drugs appears to have predated her employment at the Hinton Lab.

Ryan also recently ruled that defendants in other cases should have full access to the data and records from the OIG investigation and whether other chemists at the Hinton lab were investigated. Some defense attorneys have been calling for a broader investigation involving more chemists.

The scope of Farak's drug use is also the focus of disciplinary hearings for three former assistant attorneys general that are currently being held before the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers. Initially, the state said Farak had been using drugs at the lab for a short time. Later, after a defense attorney found material written by Farak as part of mental health treatment that showed that her drug use had been going on for years.

The former assistant attorneys general --- Kris Foster,  Anne Kaczmarek and John Verner — are accused of withholding the mental health documents and other potentially exculpatory evidence. Those hearings started last month and are expected to continue for much of October.

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Deborah Becker Twitter 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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