Metro

Man files suit over tampering at state drug lab

Rolando Penate, as seen in a 2011 Springfield Police booking photo.

Springfield Police/ The Republican newspaper of Springfield

Rolando Penate, as seen in a 2011 Springfield Police booking photo.

A Springfield man whose drug conviction was dismissed earlier this year is now suing several state government employees, including a former Amherst drug lab chemist convicted of tampering with evidence. He alleges that his constitutional rights were violated not only by the chemist, but also by her supervisors, prosecutors, and police.

“This is a case about government corruption,” Rolando Penate claims in his complaint against sixteen individuals and the city of Springfield. He filed the lawsuit last week in Massachusetts federal court.

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Penate was arrested by Springfield police in late 2011 on drug distribution charges, to which he pleaded not guilty. Evidence from his case was analyzed by Amherst lab chemist Sonja Farak, who was herself arrested in January 2013 for stealing from drug evidence samples to support her own addiction. After confessing in early 2014, Farak was sentenced to 18 months in jail and five years of probation.

Farak later testified that she abused narcotics for several years prior to her arrest, and even made her own crack cocaine at work using samples from the evidence locker. At the time of her arrest, Farak was seeing a counselor for substance abuse therapy.

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Penate alleges that Farak’s drug use constitutes “deliberate indifference” to his due process rights. He further claims that two of Farak’s supervisors at the lab and two senior officials with the state Department of Public Health, which oversaw the Amherst lab until 2012, emboldened Farak through “lack of proper training, inattentive supervision, and absence of discipline.”

Lawyers for Dr. Linda Han, former director of the Bureau of Laboratory Sciences, and Julianne Nassif, former director of the Division of Analytical Chemistry, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Han and Nassif were both named in the suit.

Farak’s trial lawyer, who is not representing her in Penate’s lawsuit, defended her former client.

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“She has done all she could to take responsibility for her actions and try to make it right,” said Elaine Pourinski. “It’s unfortunate that she has been lumped together with some others who are accused of intentionally harming defendants.”

Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered Annie Dookhan, another former chemist whose evidence tampering at the Hinton crime lab led to the dismissal of more than 20,000 cases, to pay more than $2 million to a man who was convicted with drug evidence that was later found not to contain any narcotics. He dropped claims against Han, Nassif, and other state officials under a $250,000 settlement agreement in state court.

A handful of lawsuits against state officials resulting from the Hinton lab scandal are still pending.

In his lawsuit, Penate also names three lawyers who worked on the case against Farak and later related cases for the state attorney general’s office.

During Penate’s trial, his attorney, Luke Ryan of Northampton, attempted to obtain evidence regarding the scope of Farak’s tampering and on-the-job drug use. The night of her arrest, state troopers seized handwritten therapy worksheets in which Farak wrote that she used drugs for at least a year before her arrest, including on the day she analyzed one of the samples in Penate’s case.

But state prosecutors rebuffed Ryan’s motions as a “fishing expedition” and said Farak’s misconduct spanned just a few months.

Anne Kaczmarek, who led the prosecution of Farak in 2013, testified last December that she misread dates on Farak’s therapy worksheets and did not intend to block defendants like Penate from obtaining them.

EVIDENCE COMPROMISED

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A Hampden County judge rejected Kaczmarek’s explanation. After extensive hearings, Judge Richard Carey ruled this summer that Kaczmarek and another attorney named in Penate’s suit, Kris Foster, “tampered with the fair administration of justice” and intentionally withheld the crucial documents.

“Kaczmarek’s and Foster’s deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence was particularly egregious in the Penate case,” Carey wrote in his June ruling that dismissed Penate’s conviction. “That constitutional deprivation resulted in Penate serving a longer prison sentence than he would have otherwise.”

Following Carey’s order, complaints were filed with the state bar against Kaczmarek and Foster, neither of whom now works for the attorney general’s office. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Kaczmarek had been put on paid leave from her position as an assistant clerk magistrate in Suffolk County but was brought back to work, pending the outcome of the state bar’s inquiry, according to clerk magistrate Maura Hennigan.

Foster, now general counsel at the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, was not put on leave, according to an agency spokesperson.

The third state attorney named in Penate’s lawsuit, Randall Ravitz, is chief of the appeals division at the attorney general’s office, where he supervised Foster. Penate alleges that Ravitz shares blame for withholding evidence. The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

The remaining individuals named by Penate are employees of the Massachusetts State Police and the Springfield Police Department.

Shawn Musgrave can be reached at shawnmusgrave@gmail.com. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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