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Mass. crime chemist admits daily drug use in lab, sparking a second scandal

Former Massachusetts crime lab chemist Sonja Farak, left, during her arraignment in 2013. Farak pleaded guilty in 2014 of stealing drugs and tampering with evidence, setting off a second scandal after she revealed she was using crack cocaine and other drugs while analyzing evidence at the lab. (AP/The Springfield Union News, Don Treeger)

Sonja Farak told investigators she smoked crack every day at work. She also took methamphetamine, amphetamine, ketamine, ecstasy and LSD, both at work and at home. And it was all free, and often extremely high quality, because Farak was a chemist at the Massachusetts crime lab in Amherst responsible for testing drugs for police departments in criminal cases across the state.

Farak’s eight-year complimentary drug buffet ended when co-workers finally noticed some missing samples in 2013, and she was arrested and convicted. But she was not the first Massachusetts crime lab chemist to spark massive scandal — another chemist in Boston, Annie Dookhan, was discovered in 2012 to have been falsifying her analysis reports to police and the courts for years, resulting in an ongoing investigation thought to involve perhaps 20,000 defendants whose cases Dookhan may have participated in.

On top of the Dookhan cases, now come the Farak cases, with the disclosure this week that she was actively stealing and using seized drug samples while also analyzing them. The breathtaking scope of the scandal is still not known, and some defense attorneys maintain that prosecutorial misconduct kept the details of Farak’s drug-induced work secret for almost two years after her problems were discovered.

“It’s just horrible,” said Matthew Segal of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has been fighting Massachusetts prosecutors for almost four years to learn the names of all those affected by Dookhan’s misconduct, and is hoping to get the list next week. “This is why it’s not just about two chemists, it’s about an entire system that allowed this to happen, and once it did happen didn’t take steps to remedy it.”

After the Dookhan case in 2012, then-Gov. Deval Patrick closed down the crime lab in Boston and ordered a full investigation of it, but not the Amherst lab. When Massachusetts State Police inspected the Amherst lab in 2012, Farak later said she smoked crack both in the morning and just prior to her 1 p.m. interview and “there were no suspicions ever raised about her use of drugs,” the new report states.

When co-workers realized in January 2013 that samples were missing, and then found chunks of crack at Farak’s work station, the Amherst lab was shut down. Farak’s car was searched and she was arrested. With the Dookhan scandal already in full bloom in eastern Massachusetts, defense attorneys in western Massachusetts began reviewing their drug cases to see if Farak had done the lab testing. They were intrigued that the chemist had been charged with removing a substance from a case file that tested positive for cocaine, and replacing it with one that did not test positive.

The lawyer for Erick Cotto, who had pleaded guilty in 2009, moved to withdraw his guilty plea in 2013, and 15 other defendants in Hampden County, Mass., also sought information about Farak, including Rolando Penate, whose drug dealing case was then pending. Penate’s lawyer, Luke Ryan of Northampton, Mass., aggressively sought evidence about Farak’s behavior from the state attorney general’s office, which was prosecuting the chemist. But he said they refused to provide access to the evidence against Farak, and Penate was convicted and sentenced in late 2013 to five to seven years in prison.

The nine Hampden County defendants appealed their cases and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court, declared in April 2015 that it was “imperative that the Commonwealth thoroughly investigate the timing and scope of Farak’s misconduct at the Amherst drug lab in order to remove the cloud that has been cast over the integrity of the work performed at that facility.” The state attorney general’s office convened two grand juries, at which Farak testified, and their final report was released Tuesday. It is embedded below.

It is almost unbelievable. Until you read it, and see that the facts come directly from Farak’s own sworn testimony.

In addition to the samples of suspected drugs submitted by police, the Massachusetts crime lab maintained “standard” samples of drugs, from heroin down to marijuana, which could be compared to the seized samples for testing. “Farak began to consume the Amherst Lab’s standards on a fairly regular basis beginning in late 2004 or early 2005,” the attorney general’s report notes in launching its recounting of the chemist’s drug-taking journey. She preferred meth because it was the most voluminous standard in the lab and it gave her energy. By early 2005, she began taking meth every morning and soon increased her usage to multiple times a day, the report states.

“By the beginning of 2009, Farak had nearly exhausted the Lab’s entire methamphetamine standard,” the report, written by Assistant Attorney General Thomas A. Caldwell, states. So she used other stimulants, and “continued to abuse these substances during work hours while she was testing alleged narcotics. She maintained that her productivity and accuracy in her testing still did not suffer and that none of her fellow employees or superiors at the lab” ever noticed. Indeed, the fellow employees and superiors also testified and acknowledged they never noticed.

By 2010, Farak was snorting, smoking and swallowing not only the lab “standards” but also the police-submitted evidence, frequently siphoning from the powder cocaine. In one case in 2012, where police in Chicopee, Mass., had seized a kilo of cocaine, Farak “took approximately 100 grams from the same and used it to manufacture base cocaine” — crack — “at the Amherst Lab.” She also began seeking treatment for her addictions, the report states, creating another source of records about her drug use. Soon she began stealing from her co-workers’ samples as well, and manipulating the computer databases so that wasn’t noticed. Finally, a colleague looking for some of Farak’s lab samples found they had been tampered with, and she happened to get caught in January 2013.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said at the time they did “not believe Farak’s alleged tampering would undermine any cases.” Then on Tuesday, three years later, the attorney general’s report was released.

Cyndi Ray Gonzalez, chief spokeswoman for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, said that the state’s district attorneys, the defense bar and the courts “are going to have to collectively work on determining the universe of cases that could be affected. And they’re going to have to determine how best to notify the people in each case.”

But that has proved massively difficult in the Dookhan case, Segal said, forcing the ACLU to file a lawsuit in 2014, and wait until 2016 to find out from county prosecutors how many cases involved that tainted chemist. Segal said the attorney general should step in and seek justice in both cases. “The Attorney General’s Office is the people’s law office,” Segal said, “and the Attorney General has spoken eloquently about how drug abuse should be treated as a public health matter. Now there is powerful evidence that treating drug abuse as a criminal matter has resulted in egregious misconduct that deprived thousands of people of due process. How can the people’s law office have nothing to say about that?”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker told the Boston Globe that he expected to allocate resources to address the Farak situation. “We certainly believe we are going to have a big responsibility to work with the courts and with others to make sure that people who are affected by this have the appropriate opportunity to engage in that conversation,” Baker told the Globe.

Various district attorneys told the Globe they had hundreds or even thousands of cases involving Farak. But Ryan said he was not aware of any defendants who had received notice that their case might be worthy of reconsideration. Segal said in the Dookhan case, an assistant district attorney testified that “prosecutors have no obligation to notify Dookhan defendants that their convictions might have been obtained with evidence falsified by a government employee,” though a list is scheduled to be produced Monday.

The new report on Farak’s drug taking also raised new questions about what prosecutors knew and when they knew it. A second investigation was launched last year into whether state attorneys general covered up Farak’s behavior, conducted by two retired judges and two state police captains. Their report was also released Tuesday, and Gonzalez noted it found no prosecutorial misconduct.

Ryan, the defense lawyer who helped pursue the issue in Hampden County, said the report was advisory, and the judge who released it indicated he would hold further hearings on the misconduct allegations. That judge, Richard J. Carey, noted in his order Tuesday that the attorney general’s office objected to providing Ryan with information about Farak in 2013 while her case was pending, but provided it in 2014 once Farak was convicted. By then, so was Ryan’s client.

Here is the Massachusetts attorney general’s report on Sonja Farak: