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Fla. state chemist faces inquiry over evidence thefts

Discovery could halt drug cases, free prisoners

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Saturday that it is investigating 2,600 cases handled by a Pensacola-based agency chemist after discovering dozens of drug cases in which prescription pain pills were swapped out with over-the-counter pills.

Department Commissioner Gerald Bailey said the chemist handled cases involving 80 law enforcement agencies from 35 counties since he was hired in 2006. Most, but not all, of the cases involved testing drug evidence, though it was not immediately clear how many cases might be compromised.

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The situation was discovered after Escambia County investigators realized evidence was missing and later found other evidence packages in which prescription pills had been substituted with nonprescription pills.

It potentially means drug charges will have to be dropped and prisoners released if it’s determined that the chemist tampered with evidence, Bailey said.

“This has the potential of impacting hundreds of drug cases across our state,’’ Bailey told reporters. ‘‘This is a total shock and a disappointment.’’

The department is using agents from each of its offices to review all the cases handled by the chemist, who is on paid leave during a criminal investigation. He is not being identified while under investigation, but Bailey said he hopes charges are brought quickly, at which point the chemist will be fired.

The department is contacting state attorneys and law enforcement agencies across the state that have pending cases that could be compromised.

“We are going back and looking at each case that was worked and we are going to the evidence rooms of sheriff’s departments and police departments around the state and actually physically looking — especially at the prescription meds — to see if what is in that particular package is in fact a prescription medication and not in fact an over-the-counter calcium tablet,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the agency doesn’t know the motive. The chemist is not cooperating with the investigation.

“The quantities are large,” Bailey said. “It’s early in the investigation. We don’t know if the individual is a user or a trafficker.”

The situation in Florida calls to mind the case of Annie Dookhan, the Massachusetts state drug analyst who was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison in November for tampering with evidence, jeopardizing potentially 40,000 drug cases in Massachusetts.

The Florida department is reviewing its drug testing program to try to prevent similar incidents. One idea may be to increase employee drug testing, Bailey said. Right now, employees are drug tested when they are hired, but not again unless they have reason to suspect they are abusing drugs.

Attorney General Pam Bondi has offered to assist in the investigation. “The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is a top-notch law enforcement agency. I continue to have complete confidence in them and their work. This situation simply underlines the extent of the problem our country faces with prescription drug abuse,’’ Bondi said in an e-mailed statement.

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