Eight Miles High at the Massachusetts Crime Lab: Another Glaring Systems Failure in Drug Testing

“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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 A knowing smile must have come across Sonja Farak’s face if she ever read the above quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas during her nearly eight-years as a chemist for the  Massachusetts crime lab. The list of  illicit pharmaceuticals found in the trunk of Dr. Gonzo’s red Chevrolet convertible was not unlike her very own workstation stash in terms of diversity and color.  Farak’s personal bindle, however, just happened to reside within the walls of the Amherst facility where she worked as a chemist analyzing seized substances brought in by police and the buffet of illicit pharmaceuticals and industrial quantities Farak  snorted, smoked and swallowed while testing drugs for criminal cases is jaw dropping.

Referring to his own drug use,  Charlie Sheen once said …”I probably took more than anybody could survive,” during  an ABC interview. “I was banging seven-gram rocks. Because that’s how I roll. I have one speed. I have one gear.”  Sheen noted his most recent binge was “radical. … The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger, Richards look like droopy-eyed, armless children.”  But Farak’s  run would make even the most hardcore drug user stand up and take notice as this woman was not just under the influence but over the rainbow and her eclectic pharmacopeia and hepatic fortitude alone is breathtaking  but the kicker is this–she did it all within the walls of the state run crime lab and no one noticed.

Farak’s drug use started  in 2004 when she started sampling from the “primary standards” that chemists use as a reference to compare to the the seized samples brought in by police.  “Primary samples” are of very high quality and the Amherst lab maintained samples of everything from heroin to marijuana.  Farak developed a penchant for Meth and by 2005 had increased her usage to multiple times per day.   By 2009 she had nearly exhausted the labs entire methamphetamine supply.

Farak  told investigators that she smoked crack every day at work.  When police in Chicopee, Mass. seized a kilo of cocaine, Farak utilized that lab facilities to freebase about  100 grams of it and free is a very good price.  When it struck her fancy she also  took methamphetamine, amphetamine, ketamine, ecstasy LSD, Marijuana and MDMA at work and at home. She also  testified in court while drug addled and even hit the crack pipe prior to a 2012 state police accreditation inspection of the lab.  Farak remained undetected amongst those trained to detect.  Throughout her entire binge, no one noticed a decline in her work, with one colleague even calling her “meticulous” and “dedicated to her work.”

Farak  was arrested in 2013 after it was inexplicably discovered that her lab samples that she had been tampering with for nearly eight-years had been tampered with.   Chunks of crack were found at her work station and a crack pipe in her car.

She pleaded guilty in January 2014 to tampering with a handful of drug samples and served an 18-month sentence. She was prosecuted and the Massachusetts attorney general’s office said at the time they did “not believe Farak’s alleged tampering would undermine any cases” but three years later, an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey reveals otherwise.

Farak’s pursuit to oblivion rivals that of  Permanent Midnight,  Jerry Stahl’s autobiographical account his prodigious drug use as he wrote television shows but the potential consequences of Farak’s diehard addiction and penchant for psychotropics are more than just shabby dialogue on Moonlighting or Alf.  Losses of liberties and freedoms can result from positive drug tests and the consequences can be grave and far reaching. Positive drug tests can tear apart families end careers and trigger suicides.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey said the information gathered about Farak “will no doubt have implications for many cases.”  One defense attorney told the Boston Herald that Farak handled about 30,000 cases over the course of her career.

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.

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.”

Matthew Segal of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has been fighting Massachusetts prosecutors for almost four years to learn the names of all those affected by Dookhan’s misconduct.  “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.”

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.”  According to spokesman Jake Wark state’s district attorneys are undertaking research similar to that performed in the wake of the Dookhan scandal

“Our experience with the Hinton Lab crisis has provided us with a framework for identifying and acting on these cases,” Wark said, referring to  ex-chemist Annie Dookhan, who was found to have been falsifying her analysis reports to police and the courts for years and potentially tainting up to 40,000 cases.  Identifying and acting?   How about preventing?

Farak and  Dookhan’s misdeeds were initially dismissed as a minor issue by government lawyers. -These egregious debacles are not just a matter of “bad apples” but a complete organizational systems failure in a culture of deference with no internal controls and an absence of outside accountability.    In both cases the blinkered apathy is  glaringly obvious and some people felt it was easier not to examine or look too deeply into the matter.

 

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

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Press Release | Forensic Science Misconduct: A Dark and Cautionary Tale | @csidds

Press Release | Forensic Science Misconduct: A Dark and Cautionary Tale | @csidds.

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Originally posted on FORENSICS in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends:

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Don’t expect a “whodunnit” version of CSI victories in this Op-ed blog article about a darker side of the forensic sciences. It is from an author with ample forensic credentials and experience from both within and outside criminal courts of the US. The article has topics ranging from the continued use of outdated or grossly over hyped “CSI” methods, ethical and moral failures in some forensic groups, to the criminal courts inability to understand much of anything about what is “real ” versus self-serving personal opinion called “science.” A measure of proof confirming these systemic problems is the article’s presenting a glimpse into the multi-million dollar costs to taxpayers for damages won by those wrongfully convicted with the help of court-qualified forensic testimony. Some optimism about better scientific scrutiny is presented but the institutional inertia resisting legitimate change in some forensic organizations, government agencies, and criminal  justice institutions is still…

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Anatomy of a Forensic Fraud: The Reality of Drug and Alcohol Testing

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The juxtaposed documents in and of themselves reveal a number of red flags.  How does one “revise” a chain-of-custody”?    If you do a google search you will not find “chain-of-custody” as an object of the verb revise. It is an oxymoron.  A document or opinion can be revised.  A chain-of-custody, by its very definition, cannot.  This collusion to fabricate a positive test has coined a new oxymoron—“revised chain-of-custody.”     Go ahead and look it up. It is a novel one.     As it should be.

What these documents show is, in fact, indefensible ethically, procedurally and legally.  The first document signed by Dr. Luis Sanchez, past President of the FSPHP and past Medical Director of Physician Health Services, Inc.  (PHS) was sent to the Board of Registration in Medicine on December 11, 2012 and is notable for two statements.   The letter from Dr. Sanchez asserts that “Yesterday, December 10, 2012, Physician Health Services, PHS received a revision of a laboratory test result,” but it did not matter because PHS was {unaware} ” of any action taken by the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine as a result of the July 28th, 2011 report.   However, based on the amended report, PHS will continue to disregard the July 21st PEth test result.”

The second document, addressed to Dr. Luis Sanchez, is dated October 4, 2012 (67 days earlier) and shows the first document to be a bald-faced lie.

On July 28h 2011 Dr. Luis Sanchez reported to the Medical Board that I had a positive alcohol test.

Although I knew that Dr. Sanchez had fabricated the test I  had no way of proving it. I requested the “litigation packet,” which records “chain-of-custody” from collection to analysis in August of 2011.  At first they  refused.  PHS then tried to dissuade me (“it will be costly, involve attorneys, etc). Finally they agreed but threatened me with “unintended consequences.”

I was finally able to get a copy of the “litigation packet”  in December of 2011.  Remarkably, it  showed that Sanchez had requested my ID # and a “chain-of-custody” be added to an already positive specimen. I reported this to the Board but they ignored it. I also filed a complaint with the College of American Pathologists.Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 11.17.32 PM

On October 23, 2012 Sanchez reported to the Medical Board that I was “noncompliant” with requirements with A.A.  meetings that I was supposed to go to as a direct result of the positive test and my license to practice medicine was suspended as a result in December 2012.

On December 10, 2012 I contacted the College of American Pathologists who told me the test was “amended” from “positive” to “invalid” on October 4, 2012. I confronted Sanchez and PHS and they said they did not know anything about it.

The following day, December 11, 2012, they sent out a letter saying that the test was invalid but that they were “unaware of any action taken against my license as a result of the test.”  

The documents show that on  July 19th, 2011 Sanchez requested my ID # 1310 and a “chain-of-custody” be added to an already positive specimen and on October 4th 2012 the test was “appended” to “external chain of custody not followed per standard protocol.”

Please note again that  Dr. Sanchez stated on December 11, 2012 that he “just learned” about this on December 10, 2012. He reported me to the Board as “noncompliant” on October 23, 2012 and my license was suspended in December 2012.   These documents show he had full knowledge that the test was invalid and as an agent of the Board this is under “color of law.”   Both he, and PHS, need to be held accountable for this.

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Lies, Lies, and More Lies

10:19:12-Verbal Compliant Noncompliance f:u written 10:19:12–BORM Complaint Committee

The contradictory documents from Sanchez alone constitute a crime (withholding information in concealment and providing false information to a state agency).  But what he did is far far worse.

I just obtained the October 4th document. Although I knew it existed, PHS suppressed it and refused to acknowledge it.   But in response to a complaint I filed against PHS and the labs it was revealed by USDTL that the test in question (phosphatidyl-ethanol) was not sent as a “forensic” specimen but collected as a “forensic” specimen, then changed to a “clinical” specimen at the request of PHS Program Director, Linda Bresnahan.   The specimen was kept at the collecting lab (Quest) for 7 days as a  “clinical” specimen, then sent to the analyzing lab (USDTL) with specific instructions from Quest to process it and report it as a “clinical” specimen.  PHS then used it as a “forensic” specimen by reporting me to the Board of Registration in Medicine and  requesting I undergo an evaluation for alcohol abuse.

As a “clinical” specimen it is rendered “Protected Health Information” (PHI) and thus under the HIPAA Privacy-Rule.   So with the help of the College of American Pathologists I requested my PHI from both Quest and USDTL. Quest refused (for obvious reasons) but USDTL complied.   And that is how I was able to obtain the October 4th document revealing that Dr. Sanchez lied to the Medical Board.     I would love to hear him, or PHS MRO Wayne Gavryck, defend the indefensible (and unconscionable).

Dr. Sanchez is correct when he pleads ignorance of any action taken by the Board as a result of the July 21st PEth result.   It was his report to the Medical Board  that I was “noncompliant” with attending AA meetings (that I was supposed to go to as the direct and sole result of the positive test)   that he reported to the Board just two weeks after the October 4th appended test.

The test was sent as a “clinical” specimen intentionally. PHS is not a clinical provider but a monitoring agency. They cannot send clinical samples.   But since clinical samples are “protected health information” and under HIPAA the lab had to give me the records and here you have them.

The distinction between “forensic” and “clinical” drug and alcohol testing is black and white.  PHS is a monitoring program not a treatment provider.  The fact that a monitoring agency with an MRO asked the lab to process and report it as a clinical sample and then used it forensically is an extreme outlier in terms of forensic fraud.  The fact that they collected it forensically, held it for 7 days and changed it from “forensic” to “clinical” to bypass strict “chain-of-custody” requirements  deepens the malice.  The fact that they then reported it to the Board as a forensic sample and maintained it was forensic up until now makes it egregious.   But the fact that the test was changed from “positive” to “invalid” on October 4th, 2012 and Sanchez then reported me to the Board on October 23rd 2012 for “noncompliance,” suppressed it and tried to send me to Kansas for damage control makes it wantonly egregious.   (they didn’t think I’d ever find out).

Add on that the fact that I’ve been questioning the validity of the test since day 1 and they violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule over and over and this is reckless and major health care fraud.

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Fax from PHS to USDTL on July 19th, 2011 asking that my ID #1310 be added to an already positive test and a “chain-of-custody” be “updated”

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USDTL complies with PHS request to and adds my ID #1310 and a date of collection (July 1, 2011) to an already positive specimen

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No date of collection, no unique identifier linking specimen to me. Multiple “fatal flaws.”

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I file complaint with CAP January 12, 2102. CAP forces USDTL to amend test from “positive” to “invalid” which they do on October 4, 2012. PHS conceals this fact until December 11, 2012

Letter from Chief of Toxicology at MGH–Ignored by PHS, USDTL, and the BORM         11:5:12-Dr. Flood Letter–Ignored by PHS:USDTL:BORM

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Physician sues Quest Diagnostics for forensic drug test fiasco

Massachusetts physician Dr. Michael Langan has filed a lawsuit against Quest Diagnostics, alleging the lab giant was negligent and engaged in fraud and deceit in its handling of his forensic drug test sample.

http://pathologyblawg.com/pathology-news/pathology-vendors/quest-diagnostics/physician-sues-quest-diagnostics-forensic-drug-test-fiasco/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=physician-sues-quest-diagnostics-forensic-drug-test-fiasco