A joint audit committee convened Wednesday at the State House to determine where to pin blame beyond disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan in the ongoing Hinton Drug Lab crisis.
The committee, which is a combination of the state Post Audit and Oversight Committee, Joint Committee of Public Health and Joint Committee on Public and Homeland Security, heard testimony from a variety of officials directly and indirectly involved with the scandal, which has jeopardized at least 34,000 criminal cases in Massachusetts.
At the hearing – the second of what one committee member termed “many” – the committee sought to go beyond Dookhan’s malfeasance, and tried to figure out how the Hinton lab was being run, why it operated without proper accreditation and how Dookhan’s well-documented monstrous workload did not raise red flag with supervisors.
MaryAnn Bigby, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, led the testimony shedding more light on Dookhan’s workload, which was estimated to be at 50 percent higher than any other lab chemist at the time she admitted to botching drug tests in June 2011.
Bigby said prior to June 2011 there was a massive influx of samples coming into the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, and given the resources, there were not enough technicians to process them. Dookhan asked to take on the lion’s share of the workload.
“She volunteered to do the testing,” she said. “She worked nights and weekends. She had some motivation to remain there.”
Protocol at the lab dictated that at least two chemists would test every sample, Bigby said.
Bigby said the lab supervisor would do random tests on samples that were already done, and at one point “became concerned” with the amount Dookhan was testing.
Rep. Harold P. Naughton, chair of the Public Saftey and Homeland Security Committee, questioned how Dookhan could be handling that high of a workload without other workers having to perform necessary checks and balances on that workload.
Bigby said that stands to reason, but she could not provide an answer as to why the situation was not reported.
Naughton was incredulous.
“When I hear that we’re all keeping track of chain of custody my head almost explodes,” he said.
Bigby estimated Dookhan had been testing the high volume since the 2009 Melendez-Diaz U.S. Supreme Court Decision, which held that chemists must testify in court along with the results they test.
Hinton’s Reporting Culture
Rep. David T. Vieira, part of the joint committee, suggested that workers did not want to report questions about Dookhan’s workload through the chain of command.
Vieira said it is possible workers feared raising suspicion without fear of retribution.
“The policies and procedures seem in place,” he said, “but perhaps the organizational culture that did not allow reporting to happen.”
He suggested an ombudsman-like position be developed to allow for better neutrality in the reporting structure.
Bigby agreed the culture may have been a problem at the lab, but while the Dookhan issue is unprecedented in its vastness, she said prior, smaller issues at the lab had been handled without much trouble.
“There have been situations…where swift and appropriate action had been taken, they just didn’t end up in the newspapers,” she said.
Questions about the Hinton Drug Lab’s accreditation status arose during the Wednesday afternoon hearing.
Bigby said the lab was running based on procedures recommended by an international organization specifically geared toward labs that are not accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.
Bigby said the lab justified this lack of accreditation because its origins were not associated with a law enforcement agency. State Police drug labs, for example, must have proper accreditation.
Though the international organization had updated their policies and procedures in 2009, the Hinton drug lab had not necessarily adopted those new policies, Bigby said.
“They had not yet formally adopted all of those procedures, but they were in the process of doing so,” she said.
Rep. David Linsky, chair of the Post Audit committee, called the lack of accreditation “appalling.”
“There appears to be no reason whatsoever why accreditation wasn’t sought and wasn’t obtained by the drug lab for years and years and years,” he said.
Linsky said so far he had determined the lack of checks and balances at the Hinton Drug Lab so great that it only took one chemist to create unprecedented legal, financial and criminal havoc for years to come.
“We haven’t even seen the extent of damage yet, but we are certainly anticipating damage in terms of public safety, damage in terms of public health and tax dollars needlessly expended as we’re going forward,” he said.