Disgraced state chemist Annie Dookhan was falsely labeled the “sole bad actor” who submitted bogus test results in the biggest drug lab scandal in US history, according to just released court documents that suggest other employees at the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain may have escaped accountability for their roles.
Former State Inspector General Glenn Cunha famously concluded that Dookhan alone bore criminal responsibility for falsifying drug evidence that led to thousands of convictions being thrown out over the last decade. But, by the time Cunha released his report in 2014, he had already quietly referred another lab employee to then-Attorney General Martha Coakley for criminal prosecution, according to the new documents.
Eventually, Cunha referred at least three more Hinton Lab chemists or supervisors to Coakley’s successor Maura Healey for alleged misconduct — including falsely labeling substances illegal drugs when they weren’t, spiking samples with illegal drugs or lying to investigators.
None of the four lab employees that Cunha identified was ever charged and their identities were not disclosed until now. A fifth referral was found in the former IG’s documents, but it appears that referral was never forwarded to the attorney general’s office.
The Dookhan case was politically sensitive for Coakley, unfolding as she was mounting her unsuccessful 2014 campaign against Charlie Baker for governor. During the campaign, she vowed that there would not be another drug lab scandal under her administration. Some defense attorneys suspect that Cunha, a former assistant attorney general, was trying to help Coakley by blaming Dookhan alone.
But legal experts note that criminal referrals are just recommendations and prosecutors sometimes decline to seek charges if they don’t think the evidence is strong enough.
Middlesex Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggan ordered the Inspector General’s records to be released to the public on Monday, capping a months-long campaign by defense attorneys who suspected the records could show potentially criminal misconduct by other lab employees aside from Dookhan.
In his decision, Haggan wrote that defendants caught up in the scandal as well as the public at large have a “valid interest” in reviewing documents from the former inspector general’s investigation — despite Cunha’s desire to keep them confidential.
The “policy of maintaining confidentiality must yield to defendants’ rights to a fair trial,” Haggan wrote in his nine-page decision, noting that allegations of misconduct by government employees “could affect the integrity of criminal convictions.”
Cunha, who completed his second five-year term as inspector general last year, said he wanted to review the decision before commenting.
Greg Batten, who represents Ricky Simmons, one of the defendants who fought for the release of these documents, called the decision “a big deal for thousands of people and the criminal justice system. It’s a big deal for the courts and everybody who has been lied to.”
Defense lawyers say they will now ask judges to throw out any conviction that was obtained through testing at the Hinton Lab between 2003 and 2012 — regardless of who the chemist was.
They say that could result in the overturning of tens of thousands of cases in addition to the more than 35,000 cases that involved testing by Dookhan and another chemist in Western Massachusetts that the state Supreme Judicial Court already ordered dismissed.
On the other hand, some judges may decide that, unless a chemist was actually prosecuted or at least charged, any conviction tied to their testing should remain in place.
Former Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is now a lawyer in private practice, declined comment on the cases, but pointed out that her office received many referrals for criminal prosecution from a variety of agencies.
“We would do our best to evaluate them on their merits,” Coakley said. “There were a lot of referrals that wouldn’t necessarily result in charges being pursued.”
Dookhan went to prison for three years after pleading guilty to evidence tampering including contaminating samples intentionally and testifying on results for tests she never did. In one case, she falsely certified that table salt was a class E controlled substance, authorities said. Another time she said a cashew was cocaine.
She was released on parole in 2016.
The fallout from Dookhan’s 2012 arrest prompted then-Governor Deval Patrick to permanently close the Hinton Lab where she worked.
Patrick asked Cunha in November 2012 to provide an “independent assessment” of the drug lab operations, outside of the attorney general’s office. In the first of three reports, issued in 2014, Cunha concluded that Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at the lab, which was beset by mismanagement and poor standards.
In all three reports, he said he did not find evidence that any other employees “engaged in misfeasance or malfeasance that impacted the reliability of drug testing.” The newly released documents show that lawyers for the IG repeatedly denied making any criminal referrals.
In fact, Cunha, who previously worked for Coakley in the attorney general’s office, did refer several other Hinton employees for possible criminal prosecution, the newly released records show.
It is unclear how serious the allegations were against the other lab employees because the attorney general’s office never brought charges against them.
According to the newly released documents, three months before he issued his 2014 report on the drug lab, Cunha referred to the attorney general’s office Julie Nassif, who oversaw the Division of Analytical Chemistry within the Department of Public Health at the time of Dookhan’s crimes.
He alleged that she misled the state police when they interviewed her about Dookhan’s misconduct. She was fired in 2012, according to published reports.
A lawyer for Nassif declined to comment.
In July 2014, Cunha made criminal referrals for another supervisor, Charles Salemi, as well as other unnamed chemists. Cunha said they certified that a substance called BZP was an illegal drug when they knew that under Massachusetts law it was not, the new records show. Salemi retired in 2012.
Salemi could not be reached for comment.
Then, in a June 2015 e-mail, the IG’s general counsel Audrey Mark referred two other chemists to the attorney general’s office: Sosha Haynes and Kate Corbett. Both were accused of spiking samples to make them appear as illegal drugs, according to the new documents.
In one case, Mark wrote, Haynes tested a single sample five times, initially detecting no cocaine, but by the fifth try, she detected a strong presence of the drug. Haynes worked at the lab in 2004 and was gone before the Dookhan scandal unfolded, according to state records.
Corbett, meanwhile, tested one sample for oxycodone three times, initially finding a weak presence, but, by the third try, she found clear presence of the drug. She was fired in 2013 for falsely claiming she had a chemistry degree, according to published reports, but her attorney Doug Brooks said that Merrimack College later acknowledged she was entitled to the degree.
“Any IG referral against Kate Corbett was baseless,” Brooks said. “Kate even went on to testify on behalf of the government in a subsequent federal matter.”
Staff in the inspector general’s office wrote e-mails alleging that various unnamed Hinton employees had mishandled drug tests, raising the possibility that even more employees were involved in wrongdoing. Mark, the IG general counsel, prepared a criminal referral letter for multiple chemists, but they were never sent to the attorney general.
Dookhan became a household name in the months after her arrest in September 2012, leaving a long trail of falsified drug analyses as well as e-mails that showed she was anything but a neutral witness in the justice system. Instead, Dookhan viewed herself as part of the prosecution team, openly saying that her goal was “getting [drug dealers] off the street.”
It took many more months after Dookhan’s guilty plea before the misdeeds of a second chemist, Sonja Farak, working in a different lab, came to light. Farak, who primarily worked in Amherst, was accused of using drugs she stole on the job.
Lawyers representing four drug defendants began seeking documents related to Cunha’s investigation in 2021 because, after the Farak case, they suspected other chemists engaged in wrongdoing.
Last July, Middlesex Superior Court Judge John Lu ordered the former IG to allow prosecutors to review his records. A Middlesex County assistant district attorney, Ryan Rall, combed through more than 100,000 electronic records from Cunha’s office until he discovered the documents related to referrals and potential wrongdoing by other chemists.
But the documents remained unavailable to the public until Monday when Haggan released them.
Robert McGovern, a spokesman for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, called the release of the documents “the first important step in a longer process during which we hope to learn more about the full extent of the ongoing drug lab scandal. ... The legitimacy of the legal system has been tested throughout this dark moment.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.