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Chemist admitted wrongdoing in lab scandal

The former chemist at the heart of the state drug lab scandal admitted that she altered test results, forged colleagues’ initials, and did not perform proper tests on drugs “for about two to three years,” according to a State Police report that lays out in detail what one prosecutor has called “one of the largest criminal snafus” in Massachusetts history.

The 100-page State Police report, obtained by the Globe Wednesday morning, makes it clear that Annie Dookhan’s colleagues were deeply suspicious of her shoddy work habits and extremely high output for years. But super­visors took little action for more than a year, even when confronted with evidence that she had lied on her ­resume and removed drug evidence without authorization.

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When police finally questioned her in August, Dookhan said she alone was to blame for the rampant breaches of protocol that have jeopardized the reliability of drug evidence used in 34,000 cases during her nine-year career at the lab. Dookhan said she did not even tell her husband the details of her misconduct.

“I messed up bad. It’s my fault,” said Dookhan, according to a summary of the Aug. 28 interview at her Franklin home. “I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.”

The police report, compiled by state troopers working for Attorney General Martha Coakley, for the first time ­offers Dookhan’s perspective on a crisis that has prompted closure of the state Department of Public Health drug lab, the resignation of the public health commissioner, and the disciplining or firing of several lab supervisors.

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Perhaps farthest-reaching, the drug lab scandal has raised profound doubts about thousands of drug cases, including those of 1,141 inmates of state prisons and county jails who were convicted based on evidence analyzed by Dookhan. Already, judges have freed, ­reduced bail for, or suspended the sentences of at least 20 drug defendants in the scandal.

So far, no one is facing criminal charges for work at the lab, but Coakley is conducting a wide-ranging criminal investigation. Dookhan, like most of her colleagues, has remained silent, declining to talk to ­reporters.

The State Police report ­offers glimpses of why Dookhan, a 34-year-old mother of a young son, would have behaved so recklessly, mainly in the words of co-workers who described her as driven to do more. She would work overtime without extra pay, and she tested several times more drug samples per month than the average chemist.

At the same time, Dookhan apparently padded her resume to make herself look more impres­sive, falsely claiming to have a master’s degree in chemistry, to have graduated magna cum laude from Latin Academy in Boston, and to have taken additional courses with Spectros. The company said there is no record that she ever took courses there.

“Annie Dookhan was always trying to please people” including prosecutors, police, and bosses, said Hevis Lleshi, who trained to be a chemist under Dookhan in 2011. Lleshi said she tried to work at Dookhan’s pace, but her supervisors told her to “slow down,” adding that “you can’t work like her; it is against protocol.”

Dookhan herself seems at times nonplussed by all the atten­tion, telling her husband during the meeting with State Police that she does not need a lawyer and telling State Police that she doesn’t understand why reporters are asking so many questions.

At the end of the police inter­rogation in which she confessed to at least seven different major breaches of lab protocol, including deliberately claiming that negative drug tests were positive, the troopers said she could be seen walking the family dog.

At other times, Dookhan seems distressed, telling officers that she and her husband are having marital problems and starting to cry as she confessed that she had assessed numerous drug samples for two or three years without ­actually doing the required tests. She insisted she “would never falsify [results] because it’s someone’s life on the line,” though she later admitted that she had done just that.

After the Aug. 28 interview, State Police were so concerned about Dookhan’s state of mind that Detective Lieutenant ­Robert Irwin asked Dookhan on the phone if she ever thought “bad thoughts.”

“She said that the harm she was causing people would go through her mind every now and then,” Irwin wrote in his report. “I then asked her if she had thought of harming herself. She said no.”

By the time police talked to Dookhan in late August, problems at the drug lab in Jamaica Plain had been festering for more than a year. Dookhan had been barred from doing lab analysis in June 2011 after she was caught removing 90 drug samples from the evidence room without authorization. But, even after a confrontation with three lab supervisors, including Charles Salemi, over the mishandled evidence, Dookhan stayed on the payroll and appeared as an expert witness in drug trials.

“In hindsight, Salemi stated he realizes that was the wrong decision,” Irwin stated in his report. “They should have notified Quincy [police] and the Norfolk DA’s office right away. Salemi feels that Annie Dookhan had a mental breakdown.”

Salemi is facing disciplinary action while one of the other two supervisors at a June 21, 2011 meeting where they confronted Dookhan — and decided to let her stay — was fired.

Dookhan attempted repeatedly to deny the allegations in her interview with police, but then confessed each time the police presented her with evidence. She initially denied forging the initials of colleague Nicole Medina on reports that show the testing equipment was working. But when she saw an example of the forgery, she admitted: “I screwed up. It's my fault. I was not paying attention. . . . I wanted to get the work done.”

Several of Dookhan’s co-workers had been raising concerns about Dookhan for months or even years to their supervisors and others, but little happened. One co-worker contacted a union lawyer, but a union official told him his fears were hearsay that could kill a young woman’s career.

Still, chemist Michael ­Lawler told police that the warning signs were obvious: Dookhan’s production numbers were “inconsistent with the amount of samples she could test properly.”

He said the average chemist could analyze 50 to 150 samples a month, but Dookhan was doing more than 500, telling police he was “staggered” when he saw a report a year and a half ago that listed her monthly output.

He said he started watching the number of slides Dookhan discarded and there were too few for the numbers of tests she claimed to be performing, suggesting she was recording bogus test results.

In December 2010, Lawler alerted Salemi and Dookhan’s immediate supervisor, Elizabeth O’Brien, to his concerns. But he said Salemi allayed Lawler’s fears by saying Dookhan was taking work home and skipping lunch and breaks.

“Everybody had discomfort with Annie Dookhan’s monthly numbers,” Lawler told police. “People were worried on a personal level that their supervisor didn’t value them because they were not producing numbers as high as Dookhan.” Lawler also was concerned that “the lab was being compromised.”

One supervisor, Peter Piro, told police that he became concerned about Dookhan’s extra­ordinary testing output as early as 2007. Piro said he initially thought Dookhan was “a hard worker and diligent,” but he eventually saw some “red flags” such as the fact that Dookhan did not seem to use a microscope, which is necessary to confirm that a substance is cocaine.

On one occasion in spring 2011, Piro said he confronted Dookhan for forging a colleague’s initials on a document and again informed Salemi, who said he told Julie Nassif, the lab’s former director of ­analytic chemistry. Nassif has since been fired.

Co-workers were also concerned about Dookhan’s close relationship with prosecutors, some of whom called her on her cellphone.

Piro said she would sometimes do favors for certain prosecutors and police, such as pulling samples out of order for them. Most of the samples she improperly removed from the evidence room in June 2011 were drug cases in ­Quincy, suggesting she may have been doing a favor.

Despite the problems, Piro said the Department of Public Health did not begin an internal investigation of Dookhan until December 2011, six months after she was caught improperly removing samples from the evidence room. “The chemists were all wondering why Annie Dookhan was able to stay in the lab,” Piro told ­investigators.

Nonetheless, O’Brien, Dookhan’s direct supervisor, defended Dookhan, telling ­police that she was “a good worker and friendly.’’ She was “focused, efficient, reliable, and technologically strong, the kind of person, if you owned your own business, you would want to hire her.” The two women worked side by side from 2004 to 2008, O’Brien told police.

Dookhan tearfully told ­Irwin in an Aug. 30 cellphone call that she never meant to hurt anyone.

“I told her I knew that and that she’d made a mistake, but that didn’t make her a bad person,” Irwin wrote in his report.

Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report. ­Brian Ballou can be reached at ballou@globe.com. Andrea ­Estes can be reached at ­estes@globe.com.
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