Stunned by the scope of the drug lab scandal, state legislators sought assurances Wednesday from State Police that safeguards are in place at crime laboratories to prevent the type of alleged “rogue activity” by chemist Annie Dookhan that led to the shutdown of the Department of Health lab in Jamaica Plain.
Major James Connolly, the commanding officer of the State Police crime lab, told the legislators that while it would be difficult to prevent such activity outright, “We’re confident . . . it would not go on for long.”
Public Safety Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan told the panel that strict guidelines at the State Police drug lab in Sudbury and at eight other accredited State Police labs would detect the kind of mishandling linked to Dookhan.
“Adhering to these strict standards, the State Police crime lab conducts annual quality assurance audits and reviews employee productivity on a monthly basis,” she said. “These monthly reviews are just one example of what would have provided early detection that Ms. Dookhan’s unusually high output was cause for concern.”
The Sudbury lab has taken over the testing of thousands of drug samples left untested by the closing of the Jamaica Plain lab.
Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Massachusetts’ Health and Human Services secretary, acknowledged during Wednesday’s hearing that there were “serious lapses in oversight” at the Jamaica Plain lab.
“My review found the lab maintained outdated operating procedures, lacked any type of independent accreditation, and lab supervisors failed to properly monitor their direct reports,” Bigby said.
She also said lab management became aware of a “serious breach of protocol” by Dookhan in June 2011 but failed to alert the public health commissioner’s office.
“We have asked the questions ‘What happened?’ and ‘How could one chemist have caused so much damage?’ ” Bigby said. “There are no good answers.”
Dookhan worked at the lab from 2003 until March 2012, when she quit amid a State Police investigation that led to shutdown of the lab in August.
Investigators say Dookhan improperly removed 90 drug samples from the evidence room in June 2011 without signing them out, as required. But the chemist continued to serve as an expert witness in criminal cases for months, until state authorities became concerned that her misconduct was more extensive than previously believed. Dookhan allegedly confessed to State Police that she manipulated the weights of some drug samples, tampered with samples to make negative results positive, and violated lab protocols aimed at protecting the integrity of testing.
Dookhan, who lives in Franklin, has pleaded not guilty in Boston Municipal Court to two counts of obstruction of justice and to an accusation that she falsified her academic credentials. She remains free on $10,000 cash bail pending trial.
The oversight hearing was led by Representatives Jeffrey Sanchez, chairman of the Committee on Public Health, Harold Naughton, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, and David Linsky, chairman of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee.
Earlier this month, Inspector General Glenn Cunha took over the investigation into the Jamaica Plain drug lab. Attorney General Martha Coakley is pursuing a criminal investigation of Dookhan.
Boston attorney David Meier, hired by Governor Deval Patrick to oversee the identification of cases linked to Dookhan, told the panel his team has identified at least 10,000 people so far who were prosecuted based on drug testing conducted by Dookhan.
Already, 388 cases have been reviewed, and of those, 195 defendants were released by Nov. 10, 79 in Boston, Meier said.
Costs related to representing defendants who might be affected by the scandal could grow to $332 million, according to the state’s public defender agency, which developed the budget projection.
Lisa Hewitt, general counsel for the the Committee for Public Counsel Services, told the Globe Tuesday that the $332 million assumes each of the 190,000 cases handled at the lab since 2003 would have to be litigated, regardless of whether Dookhan was involved.
Patrick said the estimate is overblown and the number of cases is closer to 34,000. On his WTKK radio show, Patrick said the agency’s requests have continually been exaggerated.
“I will say they have come down from the half-a-billion dollars they were asking for,” he said with a chuckle.
Brian Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.