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State pharmacy officials knew convict led oversight firm

Three top administrators of the Massachusetts pharmacy board learned in 2006 that a company monitoring a troubled Framingham pharmacy was led by a man convicted of fraud involving a product blamed for blinding people, according to newly released documents. But the officials apparently did not tell board members.

The Globe previously reported that Illinois-based Pharmacy Support Inc. was chosen by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Pharmacy in January 2006 to review operations at New England Compounding Center -- the company now blamed for the national fungal meningitis outbreak that has killed 32 people and sickened more than 400.

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The board was responding to several complaints that New England Compounding was mass-producing drugs and operating like a manufacturer, in violation of its state license.

It had been unclear whether the board at the time was aware of the legal troubles of Ross Caputo, who founded Pharmacy Support Inc.

But documents released by the state Tuesday in response to an open records request from the Globe show that the board’s attorney saw a news story about Caputo’s conviction from a Chicago newspaper in April 2006 -- a month before the pharmacy board voted to accept the Illinois company’s findings that New England Compounding had satisfactorily met the requirements of a consent agreement.

The consent agreement included a stipulation that Caputo’s company inspect and monitor New England Compounding to ensure proper and sterile operations.

An April 24, 2006, e-mail from board attorney Susan Manning about New England Compounding issues included an attachment labeled “2 guilty of selling bad sterilizers to hospitals.” The attached article detailed Caputo’s conviction for fraud involving faulty sterilization equipment sold by another company he formerly ran.

Manning sent the e-mail to Jean Pontikas, director of the Massachusetts Division of Health Professions Licensure, board executive director Charles Young, and assistant director James Coffey, but the head of the agency that oversees the pharmacy board said the board was apparently never informed.

“We have found no evidence to indicate that the Executive Director or staff attorney of the Board provided this crucial information to the Board,” Dr. Lauren Smith, interim commissioner of the Department of Public Health, says in testimony prepared for a US House subcommittee hearing Wednesday on the meningitis outbreak. “Nor did they see fit to send inspectors back to NECC in 2006 to determine if they were fulfilling the requirements of the corrective action plan.” The testimony was posted Tuesday on the website of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Manning was placed on administrative leave and Coffey, who succeeded Young as the board’s director, was fired last week for allegedly taking too long to address a complaint in ­July of this year that New England Compounding was distributing bulk shipments of drugs to hospitals in Colorado, in violation of its state licenses.

A spokesman for the administration of Governor Deval Patrick said Tuesday that Pontikas was placed on administrative leave last Thursday, and Young retired in 2006.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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