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Lawyer requests federal investigation into drug lab scandals

Sonja Farak was arraigned in January 2013.Associated Press/File

A defense attorney has called for a federal investigation into scandals at the state’s drug labs in Jamaica Plain and Amherst. The scandals, which first came to light more than five years ago, have led to the dismissal of more than 30,000 drug convictions because of misconduct by state chemists and prosecutors.

In a letter sent recently to US Attorney Andrew Lelling, the defense lawyer called the state’s inquiry into Sonja Farak, the Amherst chemist arrested in 2013 for stealing from the evidence locker, “constitutionally inadequate.”

The attorney, Jim McKenna of North Grafton, told the Globe his decision to reach out to Lelling “came down to the end of the process of elimination.”

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“There is no one left except the US attorney,” McKenna said. He believes the state attorney general’s office — under both Martha Coakley and Maura Healey — “failed repeatedly” to investigate Farak. McKenna also said the state inspector general’s investigation into Annie Dookhan, arrested in 2012 for tampering with samples, was incomplete.

A spokeswoman for Lelling said she was unable to confirm whether the US attorney’s office would open an investigation.

Farak and Dookhan worked together at the Hinton drug lab in Jamaica Plain for nine months before Farak transferred to Amherst in 2004. Farak later testified she smoked crack cocaine several times a day while at Amherst. Following extensive litigation, prosecutors agreed earlier this year to vacate every single conviction based on evidence she analyzed while at Amherst.

But McKenna says there’s been far too little scrutiny into Farak’s time at the Hinton drug lab.

“Such an investigation was required by both constitutional obligation and the public trust, yet — after all these years — is not even on the horizon,” McKenna wrote in his letter to Lelling.

Following Dookhan’s arrest, then-Governor Deval Patrick tasked the state inspector general’s office with investigating how her tampering went undetected for so long. In 2014, the inspector general determined Dookhan was the “sole bad actor” at the lab.

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McKenna and other defense attorneys dispute this finding, noting that the inspector general report barely mentions Farak. A footnote in the report describes Farak as an “Amherst lab chemist” without indicating that Farak also overlapped with Dookhan at the Hinton lab.

The inspector general found Dookhan’s supervisors failed to catch many red flags, including her “spectacular productivity.” Dookhan confessed to reporting results without running any tests on some samples, a type of forensics fraud called “dry labbing.” She sometimes processed more than twice as many samples as her colleagues in a given month, the inspector general reported.

But defense attorneys believe the inspector general may have excluded Farak from its Hinton lab analysis, perhaps because of her relatively short tenure there. A statistician hired by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency, found Farak analyzed even more cocaine samples than Dookhan did in certain months.

“The data reveals that Farak’s testing volume not only rivaled Annie Dookhan’s, it dwarfed it,” wrote CPCS attorney Chris Post and defense attorney Luke Ryan to the state’s top court in January.

The inspector general’s office, which declined to comment on McKenna’s letter to the US attorney, has opposed attempts to obtain details about its Hinton lab investigation. And under Massachusetts law, most inspector general documents are confidential and shielded from public records laws.

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Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, who heads the Massachusetts District Attorney Association, defended the inspector general’s investigation as thorough.

“The results of that investigation have been public and available to state and federal authorities — and defense counsel — since March 4, 2014,” Morrissey said in an e-mailed statement.

The state’s response to the Farak scandal is currently being considered by the state Supreme Judicial Court. At oral arguments in May, defense attorneys asked the court to dismiss all cases that passed through the Amherst lab during Farak’s tenure on the grounds that she sometimes stole from samples assigned to other chemists.

In 2015, the state Supreme Judicial Court found the state’s investigation into Farak’s misconduct was “cursory at best,” and a judge ruled in 2017 that two former state prosecutors committed “a fraud upon the court” by hiding evidence of Farak’s longstanding drug use.

Healey’s office declined to comment.


Shawn Musgrave can be reached at shawnmusgrave@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawnmusgrave. Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.