By Zach Howard
(Reuters) - A chemist at a western Massachusetts drug laboratory pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges of tampering with drug evidence, the second such accusation against a crime lab chemist in the state in recent months.
Sonja Farak, 35, was arraigned on two counts of tampering with evidence and two counts of drug possession, according to a court clerk at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, Massachusetts. Farak, who was arrested on Saturday, was being held in custody in lieu of $5,000 bail.
Farak lives in Northampton and handled drug evidence at the Amherst Drug Laboratory on the University of Massachusetts campus about 90 miles west of Boston.
Prosecutors alleged that Farak, on two days in January, completed tests on samples that tested positive for illicit drugs, then removed relatively small quantities of heroin and cocaine for personal use and replaced the drugs with other substances.
Farak's attorney was not immediately available to comment.
The charges came a month after another state crime lab chemist in Boston, Annie Dookhan, 34, was indicted on charges of falsifying drug evidence in thousands of cases. She was arrested in September.
Investigators identified some 10,000 people convicted or accused of crimes based on evidence that Dookhan handled at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain, and state officials said in December that hundreds of people had been released from prison pending new trials in the investigation.
The new case against Farak fanned fears about potential effects on criminal cases involving evidence she handled, but state officials said a preliminary investigation indicates she allegedly stole already-tested illegal drugs for her own use.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a Sunday press conference that "the allegations against do not implicate the reliability of testing done or fairness to defendants."
Meanwhile, the state's District Attorneys Association said it had begun internal case reviews to assess any potential impact from Farak's activities.
The Amherst lab campus stores and analyzes controlled substances seized by local and state police. Supervisors at the lab on Friday contacted State Police to report a discrepancy in the controlled substance evidence inventory, and police and Coakley's office began investigating.
Farak began working as a state lab chemist at the Hinton lab in 2002 and moved to the Amherst lab in 2004, Coakley said. State police assumed oversight of the Hinton and Amherst labs from the Department of Public Health in July after learning of Dookhan's activities.
Both the Amherst and Hinton labs have been temporarily closed and the chemists moved to another lab.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Phil Berlowitz)