scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Critics call for independent review of Amherst drug tampering case

Sonja Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to meddling with drug samples. DON TREEGER/THE SPRINGFIELD UNION NEWS VIA AP

The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Bar Association are calling for an independent investigator in the case of a former state chemist who stole and used drugs she was supposed to be testing.

Amherst chemist Sonja Farak’s tampering may have tainted evidence in 10,000 or more cases, defense attorneys and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said.

Attorney General Maura Healey has appointed a special assistant attorney general to investigate, but critics say that does not go far enough. They are demanding the appointment of a person not affiliated with law enforcement.

“Public confidence in the criminal justice system has to be restored as soon as possible,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Public Defender Division of CPCS, the state’s public defender agency. “Somebody needs to get to the bottom of what happened here so that we can move forward and make sure it never happens again.”


Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 to meddling with a handful of drug samples at the now-shuttered Amherst lab, and served an 18-month sentence.

She was prosecuted by Attorney General Martha Coakley, and officials initially insisted there was no evidence her misdeeds went any further.

But in April, the state’s highest court ruled that top state law enforcement officials had failed to investigate the scope of Farak’s offenses. Healey, who was not involved in the original investigation, has since appointed retired Superior Court Judge Peter Velis to conduct an independent investigation.

That investigation, Velis has said, could explore allegations that Coakley’s office deliberately withheld evidence about the scope of Farak’s drug theft and use.

Recently uncovered medical records show Farak admitted to therapists that she had been stealing drugs from her job since 2004, a full eight years before the state had claimed.

Velis said he is also investigating the possibility that the Amherst lab received drug samples from the William A. Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, where another rogue chemist, Annie Dookhan, was found to have tainted as many as 40,000 cases by fabricating results.


“Without any particulars, I can tell you this: I am getting a firm impression that the scope [of the investigation] is a lot broader than I originally anticipated,” said Velis.

Velis defended his ability to conduct an impartial and transparent investigation, saying he had been given “unfettered” authority to investigate any lead, including accusations against law enforcement.

“I am merely an investigator for the attorney general’s office in name only,” said Velis. “Just because a law enforcement agency has employed me in that regard, that does not cause me in any way to feel that any favor should be rendered, or any prejudice on behalf of or against any one else will ever in the slightest manner be exercised.”

A spokesman for Healey said her office believes strongly that the investigation must be “impartial and thorough,” and that Velis was independent.

Gioia and Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, praised the attorney general’s efforts, but said only someone independent of law enforcement should handle the probe.

“The governor should step in and appoint such an individual,” said Healy, who pointed out that the attorney general’s office is in charge of defending state employees when they are sued. “How can law enforcement investigate itself, particularly when you have allegations surfacing whether the prior attorney general may have been involved in some sort of alleged coverup?’’

A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker said the administration is not in favor of appointing a new investigator at this time. The administration, he said, stands ready to assist Velis if necessary.


The state’s inspector general also declined to take the case.

Healy also questioned how Velis would be able to investigate the situation himself, given that Farak claimed to have handled 29,000 drug samples.

“There are very serious questions about how someone, one person, can conduct an investigation, given what we now know about the scope of this matter,’’ Healy said. “It would take a tremendous amount of resources just to get the facts. I don’t understand how one person could possibly complete that task, no matter who that person is.’’

Velis said that so far, everything he has requested from the attorney general has been granted to him.

He has subpoena power, he said, and will need staff and computers. He said he has not yet worked out a budget with the attorney general’s office.

“The Commonwealth as well as the defense has a right and an obligation to make sure this is done properly,” said Velis. “Because the net result is that we’re talking about deprivation of liberty, here. . . . And liberty is our most precious gift.”

Evan Allen can be reached at John R. Ellement can be reached at