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State’s in trouble; where’s Patrick?

Springing thousands of drug dealers from prison because of tainted evidence at a poorly-run state lab is bad enough.

But now, a lack of oversight by the same Massachusetts agency responsible for the drug lab may have also contributed to an outbreak of fungal meningitis that killed at least a dozen people around the country.

And where is Governor Deval Patrick on this?

When he’s not prepping for Sunday talk shows, he’s blaming “a rogue chemist” for 10 years of tainted evidence. When he’s not traveling, he’s accusing the Massachusetts pharmacy linked to the deadly meningitis outbreak of “misleading regulators and operating outside its license.”


Isn’t it his job to make sure his appointees are watching the chemist do her job? Isn’t it his job to make sure regulators responsible for public health are regulating?

This isn’t about giving speeches or going on “Meet the Press.” It’s about governing.

Speaking to Democrats in Charlotte last month, Patrick denounced Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a failed Massachusetts governor who was “more interested in having a job than doing it.” Lately, Patrick seems more interested in reelecting President Obama than answering for troubling developments on his watch.

A scandal of historic proportions rocked the now-shuttered state lab. Thousands of drug samples were mishandled over the past nine years by chemist Annie Dookhan. The tainted drug evidence lead to the convictions and jailing of suspects who will now go free. As many as 34,000 cases may be affected.

Patrick pledged a full investigation. But he also ducked personal responsibility.

Dookhan was arrested after she told State Police she “messed up.” John Auerbach, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, whose department oversaw the drug lab, resigned. His boss, JudyAnn Bigby, the secretary of Health and Human Services, reports to Patrick.


It would be interesting to read all the memos and e-mails over the last year between DPH, HHS, and the governor’s office concerning this matter. As always, the key question is: Who knew what when?

David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank, described the drug lab fiasco to the Boston Herald as “a total failure of the chain of command. The governor has to know his appointees are doing their jobs and the appointees need to watch their own people.” Added Tuerck: “A scandal of this magnitude calls into question the leadership of the governor. It’s a systemic failure.”

What happened at New England Compounding Center, the Framingham company whose injectable steroids are at the center of another crisis, also sounds like systemic failure. The Massachusetts pharmacy has been linked to an outbreak of fungal meningitis which, as of last week, sickened at least 137 people and killed 14; about 13,000 people across the country have been injected with the steroid.

Patrick tried to get out in front of the bad news by accusing the pharmacy of misleading regulators and operating outside its license by shipping large batches of drugs across the country. Maybe it did. But this also raises questions about oversight by the state DPH. A New York Times report about one of the victims who died noted that Massachusetts has only five inspectors for more than 1,000 compounding pharmacies that make drugs.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Patrick recently called out Romney for “turning his back on half the country.” But isn’t Patrick turning his back on voters who elected him?

As the Lowell Sun’s Peter Lucas wrote in a recent column: “Patrick, on the taxpayer’s dime, has traveled the world on so-called trade missions promoting the state and himself, written two books with hefty cash advances, roamed the country promoting them, has accepted political speaking engagements across the nation, and is now raising money and campaigning nationally for President Barack Obama. In the meantime, he governs Massachusetts — sometimes.”


Yet Patrick remains popular with voters — a recent poll gave him a 57 percent favorability rating. Perhaps voters are distracted by the presidential contest or mesmerized by the fiery showdown between Senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. Or maybe, Bay State voters just expect their governors to seek the national spotlight and leave their troubles at home.

If it works for voters, it works for Patrick, too.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at Joan_Vennochi.