Since ’03, Dookhan output unusually high

Bigby says chemist worked nights and weekends

 

FROM THE DAY SHE WAS HIRED in 2003, Annie Dookhan, the mystery chemist at the center of the unfolding state drug lab scandal, performed far more tests than any of her colleagues.

JudyAnn Bigby, the secretary of health and human services and Dookhan’s ultimate boss, told lawmakers at an oversight hearing at the State House on Wednesday that the chemist’s work product exceeded the output of her colleagues by as much as 50 percent. Data released later by Bigby’s office indicated Dookhan often performed four to five times as many tests as the average chemist. Dookhan would work nights and weekends, according to Bigby, and often didn’t bother to put in for overtime.

“This chemist was very unique among the chemists working at that lab,” Bigby said, referring to the now-closed Hinton drug lab run by the Department of Public Health in Jamaica Plain. “You could consider that a positive thing, but the fact that it was so much more than other chemists was a red flag that wasn’t appropriately investigated.”

Dookhan has admitted altering test results “for about two to three years” and is now facing criminal charges. Investigators say at least 10,000 people were prosecuted based on drug testing conducted by Dookhan between 2003 and 2012. The state’s criminal justice system is sifting through all of those cases trying to determine whether successful prosecutions should be overturned. The cost could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bigby said questions about Dookhan’s lab output were raised only after a 2009 US Supreme Court decision that required chemists to testify about their work in court. Bigby said the output of the state’s other chemists fell off considerably after they began making court appearances, but Dookhan’s output dropped by a much smaller amount. Bigby said Dookhan’s supervisor responded at that time by conducting more random checks of her work, but Bigby didn’t say whether those tests turned up any problems.

“We have asked the questions: What happened and how could one chemist have caused so much damage?” Bigby said.

But the secretary had few answers. She said the drug lab maintained outdated operating procedures and lacked any type of independent accreditation. She said lab supervisors failed to monitor their employees adequately and didn’t alert superiors to problems in a timely fashion. But Bigby had no real answers for why Dookhan was able to alter results and get away with it.

Bigby said there was a procedure in place for one chemist’s work to be checked by another chemist, but she couldn’t explain how that system failed to uncover problems. She at one point said any system of checks and balances might fail in the face of an employee determined to subvert it.

Bigby, who oversaw the Department of Public Health, said she was aware the DPH Jamaica Plain lab was swamped with work. She said she did her best to protect it from budget cuts, raising the lab’s budget from $815,000 in 2008 to $1.1 million in 2012. The lab budget in 2012 was also supplemented  with $77,000 in federal funds. The number of full-time equivalent employees at the lab increased marginally between 2008 and 2012, rising from 15.15 to 15.5.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Asked by one lawmaker whether her secretariat had a culture where employees turned a blind eye to problems, Bigby said she didn’t think so. “I do not believe there is a culture, if you will, of people trying to hide problems,” she said.

After the legislative oversight hearing, Bigby was asked about Dookhan’s motives. Dookhan was having marital problems and investigators have discovered she padded her resume, falsely claiming to have a master’s degree in chemistry.  Some of her coworkers believe she had a “mental breakdown.” Bigby declined to speculate on what motivated Dookhan to falsify results, but said having personal problems “doesn’t excuse malfeasance.”

Bigby said it remains a mystery to her why Dookhan did what she did. “I can’t speak to Annie Dookhan’s motives or what precipitated her actions,” she said.