State chemist was high on the job for years, report says
A state chemist at an Amherst drug lab got high on methamphetamines or other drugs almost every day at work for nearly eight years, consumed the lab’s own supply of drugs, and cooked crack cocaine in the lab after hours — actions that jeopardize an untold number of cases — according to an investigative report released Tuesday.
Investigators for the attorney general’s office found that chemist Sonja Farak had tested drug samples or testified in court between about 2005 and 2013 while under the influence of meth, ketamine, cocaine, LSD, and other drugs, according to the report, much of which is based on Farak’s own grand jury testimony. She even smoked crack before a 2012 interview with State Police officials inspecting the lab for accreditation purposes, she testified.
“We are deeply concerned whenever the integrity of the justice system is called into question or compromised,” Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said in a statement. “The information we gathered during the course of our investigation is disturbing and will no doubt have implications for many cases.”
Although the number of cases potentially affected was not clear Tuesday, defense attorneys and advocates said the damage was not limited to those samples tested by Farak at the now-shuttered lab.
“Anything that went through that lab while she was there is in question,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “It’s too soon to know how many, but it clearly is in the thousands.”
Defense attorneys have pointed to Farak’s alleged misdeeds for more than a year, suggesting they were more widespread than law enforcement officials believed. Tuesday’s report provides the most detailed public portrait of her activities.
Farak was arrested in January 2013 after a coworker discovered missing drug samples. She pleaded guilty in Hampshire Superior Court in early 2014 to four counts of tampering with evidence, four counts of stealing cocaine from the lab, and two counts of unlawful possession of cocaine, and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars.
Farak’s case surfaced months after another state chemist, Annie Dookhan, was arrested in September 2012 and found to have fabricated evidence in thousands of samples she tested at a second state lab in Jamaica Plain, possibly tainting as many as 40,000 cases. Dookhan was paroled in April.
The newly released investigation was prompted by a ruling from the state Supreme Judicial Court last April, which said top state law enforcement officials failed to fully investigate how many times Farak tampered with drug evidence after her arrest in 2013.
“This is a statewide problem,” said attorney Luke Ryan, who helped bring the scope of Farak’s drug use and evidence tampering to light, and who represents several defendants whose samples purportedly were tested by Farak. “The fact that we’re doing this in 2016 instead of 2013 makes the job so much harder. . . . The chances of people falling through the cracks really increases.”
Farak testified she was a recreational drug user before she began working as a state chemist, according to the report, but began consuming the Amherst lab’s “primary standards” in late 2004 or early 2005. The standards are “certified” drugs purchased from a chemical company that chemists use in comparisons withunknown samples. She started with methamphetamines, she testified, taking them multiple times a day and nearly exhausting the lab’s stock by 2009.
She also used many other reference drugs, she testified, and consumed her coworkers’ samples, as well as samples police brought in as evidence. When cocaine samples coming into the lab dwindled, she testified, she began doing crack cocaine. She cooked it in the lab after hours starting in 2012, she testified. She used crack throughout the building and at her work station, she said — even when other employees were at the lab.
The supervisor of the Amherst lab testified that the lab was in “deplorable” condition, with limited funding and no security, according to the report. Because of time constraints and difficulty, workers usually identified “Class E” substances, which are substances in pill form, visually, without any tests at all, he said.
He also said the “standards” were never audited before 2012, and that budgetary constraints made purchasing new standards impossible — so he made them himself.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the magnitude of Farak’s misconduct rivaled that of Dookhan. The ACLU and other defense advocates called for the potentially affected cases to be identified and the charges against defendants dropped.
“It’s easy to get caught up in these scandals, zooming in on the specific misconduct because it’s so salacious,” said Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “But it’s also important to zoom out, and take a look at what the drug war in Massachusetts has wrought. It hasn’t cured us of an addiction problem. It has obliterated the integrity that is supposed to be the foundation of the criminal justice system.”
A second report released Tuesday found that prosecutors did not withhold evidence about Farak’s misconduct from defense attorneys.
Farak’s attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.