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Middlesex DA, inspector general clash over drug lab scandal

At issue is whether the investigation was sufficient to fully account for the conduct of disgraced chemist Sonja Farak

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, shown in this 2019 photo, wants more information about the state investigation.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, shown in this 2019 photo, wants more information about the state investigation.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A $6.2 million probe of the state drug lab scandal has sparked a heated dispute between the Middlesex district attorney’s office and the state inspector general, who have recently exchanged letters disputing whether the investigation was sufficient to fully account for the conduct of disgraced chemist Sonja Farak.

Farak pleaded guilty in January 2014 to stealing narcotics evidence from a state lab in Amherst, and she was sentenced to 18 months behind bars.

But Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan is demanding that Inspector General Glen A. Cunha, who oversaw the inquiry, explain how investigators ruled out any misconduct by Farak when she worked at the William A. Hinton laboratory in Jamaica Plain.

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Cunha’s office said in 2014 following its 15-month “top-to-bottom” investigation of lab operations, that disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at Hinton.

After Ryan aired her concerns in an unusual Sept. 25 letter to Governor Charlie Baker, Secretary of Public Safety Thomas A. Turco III, and Cunha, the inspector general fired back by accusing the district attorney of exaggerating the legal fallout from Farak’s actions “for effect.”

State records from 2003 and 2004, when Dookhan and Farak both worked at the Hinton lab, indicate Farak’s testing regularly outpaced that of Dookhan, whose drug tampering resulted in her conviction in 2013 and approximately 20,000 criminal cases being dismissed.

To date, at least 61,000 drug charges in 35,000 cases have been dismissed in Massachusetts due to misconduct by Dookhan at Hinton and Farak in Amherst.

A forensic scientist and former FBI official in 2013 warned the inspector general’s office that seven other chemists — in addition to Dookhan — should be investigated for their work at Hinton. Defense attorneys said such a probe could result in the dismissal of thousands of additional drug cases.

Several state court judges have also raised concerns about the state’s failure to investigate Farak’s work at Hinton.

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Ryan’s office recently decided not to retry Eugene Sutton, who was convicted of heroin possession in 2006 on the basis of evidence tested at Hinton by Farak. Last month, a Superior Court judge ordered a new trial for Sutton based on his finding the state didn’t thoroughly investigate Farak’s work at Hinton.

“In the wake of the Sutton decision, it is imperative that the OIG definitively state whether Farak tampered with evidence while employed at the Hinton Lab and specifically explain how the scope and methodology of its investigation allows it to reach this conclusion,” Ryan wrote, referring to the Office of the Inspector General.

Her office is handling at least 1,621 additional cases in which drugs were tested by Farak.

“Each one of these cases raises the same fundamental issue about whether the OIG’s investigation may be relied upon to determine whether Farak engaged in misconduct,” Ryan wrote.

But in a response to her letter, Cunha on Saturday chastised Ryan for sending the letter to Baker, Turco, and himself.

“While it is not my practice to engage in a battle of letters, you have chosen that course of action.” Cunha wrote, adding Ryan has never contacted him to discuss Farak or ask for further investigation into her work. He also accused her of exaggerating the number of convictions based on Farak’s tests in her letter.

Cunha said he is confident no other chemist, including Farak, was engaged in misconduct while working at Hinton.

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“My Office has stated repeatedly that other than Annie Dookhan, the Hinton Lab investigation did not find evidence that any other chemist committed any malfeasance with respect to evidence testing. These statements do not merely include Farak by negative implication; they are affirmative statements about the investigation’s findings.”

Cunha’s office declined comment for this article.

Ryan, in an interview, noted it has been eight years since the drug lab scandal was uncovered and that festering questions about the extent of wrongdoing remain, hampering the public’s ability to trust the criminal justice system.

“I believe very strongly people have to have confidence in the integrity of convictions. For a long time, these questions have been appropriately raised. We need to get to resolution on this,” she said.

Ryan declined to say whether or not she wanted Baker to order a new investigation into the drug lab scandal, including the adequacy of the inspector general’s probe. She said she wrote to Turco because he is in charge of the state crime lab, which tests evidence in criminal cases — and Turco reports to the governor.

“The ask that I have is to take whatever action is necessary to resolve the unresolved question of Farak’s conduct while at Hinton,” Ryan said.

Because of an editing error, a previous version of this story contained an incorrect word in the final quote by Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan.