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2d state chemist charged with drug tampering

With state courts still reeling from trouble at the now-shuttered drug lab in Jamaica Plain, a second chemist — this one at the crime lab in Amherst — is being charged with tampering with drug evidence, authorities said Sunday.

Sonja Farak, 35, of Northampton, allegedly tested two samples, believed to be heroin and cocaine, on Jan. 2 and Jan. 8 and then replaced the drugs with counterfeit substances, Attorney General Martha Coakley told reporters at an afternoon news conference.

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The allegations in the case against Farak are vastly different than those against Annie Dookhan, formerly a chemist at the Jamaica Plain lab, Attorney General Martha Coakley told reporters. She said officials are still trying to determine when Farak’s alleged theft of drugs, apparently for personal use, began.

Authorities have found no evidence that suspects’ due process rights were violated in any Amherst cases. “These drugs . . . were tested fairly,” Coakley said. For now, she said, Farak is charged only in these two cases.

By contrast, Dookhan’s alleged misdeeds have already resulted in the release from custody of scores of convicted drug dealers and defendants awaiting trial and could taint thousands of prosecutions.

But Hampden District Attorney Mark G. Mastroianni, whose office handled the two cases in question, would not rule out a scenario like the one playing out in the Dookhan case. Prosecutors have been bogged down with an ongoing review of cases involving so-called “Dookhan defendants.”

“I think it would be realistic to think that something like that is about to start happening in Hampden County,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s premature to tell you that definitively.”

He said Farak was in Springfield District Court on Friday to testify in another drug case when he learned of her impending arrest, so prosecutors could not put her on the stand. The case was dismissed.

“She was right there in our district court ready to go,” Mastroianni said. “That’s how real of an impact it is on Hampden County.” He said he did not know how the two cases Farak is charged in were resolved.

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan, whose office handles cases in Hampshire and Franklin counties, called the charges against Farak disturbing.

“Our office has already commenced an internal assessment of how many criminal prosecutions, both past and present, may be jeopardized by this chemist’s alleged wrongdoing,” Sullivan said in a prepared statement.

Farak was arrested Saturday night and is facing charges of tampering with evidence, possession of a class A substance, and possession of a class B substance, according to Coakley’s office.

She was held on $75,000 cash bail, Coakley said, and is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Eastern Hampshire District Court. It was not immediately clear if she had posted bail or has an attorney.

Farak could not be reached for comment.

Coakley said the alleged theft of the drugs was discovered Thursday when Farak’s supervisors were making a routine check of certifications of the two samples she had tested and could not locate them.

The supervisors went to Farak’s work area, Coakley said, and found “certain substances . . . that appeared to be drugs and on further examination appeared to be counterfeit drugs.”

“We have no reason to believe that there was sale or distribution” of the substances, Coakley said. She could not say how much contraband Farak allegedly stole, but said it was a small amount.

Coakley said that Farak began her career at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, where Dookhan worked, in 2002 before moving to the Amherst lab two years later.

According to minutes of an interview Farak gave State Police detectives investigating Dookhan in September, she said she knew Dookhan during her time at the Hinton lab. But “when asked if she ever observed or had knowledge of Annie Dookhan or anyone at the lab falsifying or forging documents . . . Ms. Farak said she did not.”

Massachusetts State Police Colonel Timothy P. Alben said during the news conference that the Amherst lab will temporarily close while authorities investigate, and its operations will be transferred to a State Police lab in Sudbury.

State Police took over the section of the Hinton lab that does criminal analysis and the Amherst lab in July in response to the Dookhan scandal. They were previously run by the state Department of Public Health. The Jamaica Plain lab remains closed.

Coakley said Farak’s alleged actions are not without precedent. “In my 25 years as a prosecutor, both state and federal, I have seen prosecutors, police, even defense lawyers who have in some way, because of the lure of [illicit drugs] . . . fail in a way that has been tragic,” she said.

There is no provision in the lab chemists’ collective bargaining agreement for random drug testing, according to State Police spokesman David Procopio.

Coakley and Alben said there are indications that Farak’s supervisors spoke to her about a drop in productivity in November, but they could not elaborate.

Dookhan, by contrast, was noted for her stunningly high productivity, allegedly by cutting corners during testing.

Kimberly Haberlin, a spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick, in a statement called Farak’s arrest “a serious situation.”

“Since its transfer to State Police last July, the lab was subject to and passed numerous state and federal audits,” Haberlin said. “As the attorney general said earlier today, at this point the allegations against this chemist do not call into question testing reliability or fairness to defendants.”

She said Patrick’s office will continue to monitor the situation.

Patrick proposed last January that the Hinton and Amherst labs be overseen by State Police rather than the Public Health Department, two months before Dookhan resigned.

State Representative David T. Vieira, a Falmouth Republican on the Joint Committee on Public Safety, said in a statement that Farak’s arrest “calls into question the entire crime lab system. . . . After being assured by the Patrick administration that the drug lab incident in Jamaica Plain was the action of one rogue chemist, it has become apparent this morning that a systemwide investigation must commence to ensure the integrity of our justice system and the public safety.”

Authorities said Sunday there is no evidence of systemic problems with the Amherst lab. However, defense lawyers were quick to point out that the Dookhan case was initially described as being far more limited in scope than what ultimately came to light.

“The news [announced Sunday] is that we have a corrupt chemist at a crime lab, and that calls into question the reliability of at least everything that she was involved in,” said Max D. Stern, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Globe correspondent Gal Tziperman Lotan contributed to this report. She can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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