Are you a boss or a leader?

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The Human and Financial Cost Associated with Top Down Failures

Being a police lab technician was never a glamourous job. When I was growing up, all of my friends wanted to be police officers, firefighters, astronauts or professional athletes; not once did I ever hear someone say they wanted to be a evidence lab technician for a police department.  Fast forward a couple of decades and a fictional TV character, by the name of Abby Sciuto from the original N.C.I.S. television series, made the evidence technician seem cool.  Abby would inevitably discover the missing evidence through some new cutting-edge technology and help the N.C.I.S. team solve the crime in an hour.

What would happen if Abby took the law into her own hands? Imagine the chaos she could cause if she forged signatures on a lab test, violated the chain of custody, failed to follow established policies, tainted evidence by falsifying certification testing or committed perjury to help her team get a conviction. What would the audience’s outrage be if Abby’s fellow employees reported her for violating policies, and forging signatures to her bosses and they did nothing to prevent it from continuing to happen? You could have a spin-off just to do the investigation into the damage the rogue chemist caused. Whatever Abby’s intentions had been, she would end up causing years of chaos when her misdeeds were discovered. Cases would be dropped, there would be lawsuits for false imprisonment, drug dealers would be released for tainted evidence, and innocent people would have gone to jail.

Well, you don’t need to imagine for long, and you certainly don’t need a spin-off, just replace the corrupt character Abby Sciuto with the real-life Annie Dookhan, who was a chemist at the Hinton Crime Lab in Boston, Massachusetts from 2003 until 2011. Dookhan had conducted over 40,000 drug certifications on narcotics evidence in the nine years that she was employed by the lab. Dookhan and her supervisors did all the things that the corrupt Abby hypothetically did, and then some.

Never in my career did I envision that I would be writing an article about the importance of the top-down message that management provides — or the lack thereof. I have sat through hundreds of hours of classes and certifications. Each stresses the importance of the tone that comes from the top and how it is vital to the overall success of an organization. I never really understood the impact it could have on the entire operation and how devastating the effects could be until I started conducting case studies on organizations that had become another scandalous statistic. What I discovered, which really drove home the relevance of tone from the top, was both the financial and personal cost associated with management failures.

The three cases I studied were eerily similar. All concerned evidentiary chain-of-custody scandals. The first was theDookhan scandal at the Hinton Crime Lab, which resulted in the facility being shut down for good. The second was when Sonja Farak, a chemist at the state crime lab at the University of Massachusetts, decided that drug certification testing should require the chemist to ingest, snort, smoke, or inject the police evidence to determine if the drugs were what they were alleged to have been.  She admitted that she started using the drugs in the lab shortly after starting and was high every day she worked. She was employed 8 years and tested over 25,000 drug samples. The third case concerned the Braintree Police Department, and their mishandling of guns, drugs and cash evidence.

Hinton and University of Massachusetts Laboratories

Dookhan’s case came to light in 2012, and less than seven months later the Farak case was discovered. The state Inspector General’s Office report outlined the epic failures of the Hinton lab’s management team. At best they were unqualified; but in reality they were derelict of their duties because they were incompetent. The managers are accessories before the fact: Their failures allowed Dookhan to run rampant at her job.

After the scandals were uncovered, two reports were issued, the Inspector General issued a report about the Hinton lab and the Attorney General issued a report about the University of Massachusetts lab, which is a satellite lab of the Hinton facility.  Both were maintained and operated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Each report showed that the tone from the top (substandard internal controls, lack of training, old and broken equipment, and lack of funding) was a contributing factor in these scandals. This should come as no surprise. An opportunity has to be present for a fraud to occur. This loose tone from the top was the factor that allowed the opportunity to occur. I can’t say definitively that these scandals would not have occurred if this factor had been properly addressed, but it’s certainly less likely they would have occurred.

In cases I have studied, I see a recurring key problem and when I present on my research, I tell the audience, “Policy and Procedures,’ ‘Rules and Regulations,’ ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ — whatever your organization calls its written guidelines — are nothing but mere words on paper unless your bosses want to be leaders.” Management has to set the tone for the entire organization. They have to supervise their direct reports to make sure that they are doing the jobs that they were hired for. They have to make sure that their direct reports are supervising their people all the way down the line to the frontline supervisors. There’s no reason to micromanage, there’s no reason  to be a dictator, but they have to be leaders.

As a leader, when you sit through training and hear how important it is to lead from the front, set the tone, be an example, do you ever actually think about the human and the financial cost associated when managers fail to do these things? How many leaders out there stop to think about how their failures affect other people? Real leaders stop to think about their actions and how those actions will affect other people and the organization’s bottom line. If you don’t take those into consideration then you are just a boss, not a leader. People stand up and take notice when you show them the toll that poor management has on people and the bottom line of an organization.

When I started to crunch the numbers for the losses associated with the two lab scandals, I was blown away. Between the two labs, 65,000 drug cases were compromised. Let’s break that down and look at the math associated with the cost of these scandals.

  • It takes four hours for the most basic drug arrest — from the time you stop someone, locate the drugs, arrest the person, tow their vehicle, transport them to the police station, process them, secure the drugs as evidence and write the arrest report. In reality, the majority of drug cases are more complicated, require more personnel and require dozens, hundreds and even thousands of personnel hours. For today’s cost analysis we are going to assume each case took only four hours.
  • Multiply the 65,000 compromised drug cases by four hours, and you have 260,000 personnel hours.
  • Divide the 260,000 by 40 hours (the number of hours worked in a week without overtime) and you get 6,500 weeks.
  • Divide the 6,500 weeks by 52 (the number of weeks in a year) and you get 125 years of personnel hours wasted as a result of these two scandals.
  • Multiply 125 years by a $100,000 annual salary of an average Massachusetts Police Officer and you get $12.5 million in taxpayers’ money wasted!

That $12.5 million was spent in making the arrest — it doesn’t even factor in the money the police officers were paid to testify in court to prosecute the cases. The $12.5 million doesn’t factor in the time for prosecutors, public defenders, judges, court officers and probation officers to prosecute the case. The $12.5 million doesn’t include the time and money to have the drugs certified at a lab, or the drug-testing cost for the defendants. If you were to use a more accurate average of 100 personnel hours to get a drug case into the system, the taxpayers’ expense balloons to $312.5 million. That is more than the entire Massachusetts State Police budget for 2019.  It gets worse when you factor in the personnel hours and the associated cost with investigating these scandals.

The Hinton lab was shut down July 3, 2012, and the investigation began. The first interview outside of Dookhan, didn’t take place until October 2013. It took a small army of investigators 16 months to shift through the data and evidence to get a handle on what it was they were dealing with before they could even begin to interview people associated with the lab.

Once the problem had been identified, Massachusetts needed to deal with it. The state put aside $30 million to address issues directly related with just the Hinton lab, and another $30 million aside for the UMass lab scandal. Remember, contributing to the scandals at each lab was a lack of funding according to the two investigative reports, that the Inspector General’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office prepared. I suspect that if the lab had a budget increase of one-one hundredth of the $60 million (($600,000) set aside to address these problems, the problems may have been avoided. If those funds were put into training, hiring additional staff, updating the labs internal controls to industry best practices, and purchasing new equipment to replace the old outdated and broken equipment, the scandals may have never happened.

When I speak to organizations and associations, I get on my soapbox about how much cheaper it is for an organization to be proactive than it is to be reactive. Training saves money, it prevents mistakes, limits liability and allows your employees to grow into future leadership positions in your organization. You also get a better employee by cultivating your in-house talent, as opposed to bringing in a hired gun. With your in-house talent, you know their strengths and weakness; you know what you’re getting. I don’t care how thorough you are when vetting an outside prospect, you will never know them as well as your in-house candidate.

The other aspect that I preach is that the cover-up is always worse than the actual crime. In Dookhan’s case, management failed to report protocol violations when they were discovered and then minimized the severity of the violations when confronted. Had managers gotten in front of this and reacted accordingly when they were notified of the problem, they might have been able to limit the damage. Since internal controls were weak and Dookhan was allowed to continue working even after management had been notified by co-workers that she was violating policy, forging signatures and violating chain-of-custody procedures,everycase she worked on could be called into question.

There is also a human cost to these scandals. At least two people have been murdered by individuals who were subsequently released early from their prison sentences, due to the Dookhan scandal.  Since Dookhan had performed the drug certification tests that were then used as evidence to show the defendants were in possession of an illegal drug, those cases were overturned. When you can’t prove an item is illegal to possess, which can’t be done when you have a tainted drug certification, then those convictions have to be overturned. Those two murders don’t fall on Dookhan alone. Her supervisors’ wretched supervision is partially to blame. If they had been leaders and doing their jobs, there is a chance those two people may be alive today.

These two lab cases are internationally known. Dookhan is so infamous she has her own Wikipedia page. Since evidentiary drug certification is such a unique specialty, you would think that the leadership teams in the labs across the United States had learned from these two cases. Despite all of the negative headlines and discussions that have taken place at association trainings, you would think that other organizations would have learned from these mistakes. Yet these scandals are still happening in other states — in New Jersey, Oregon  and Utah, to name a few.

All of the above had the potential to be prevented. When you are the face of a management team you walk a fine line between budgets and accountability. Your organization’s leaders need to lead. The leaders need to expound on the importance of the job their people are doing. They need to get their people to buy into the program, and get them the training and the tools necessary for their success. They should be using industry best standards, which wasn’t the case in any of the cases we are discussing here. They need to be able to articulate and fight for the appropriate funding, to remove the excuse that someone had to cut corners due to inadequate equipment. They can do this by showing what has happened to similar organizations that try to cheap it out. They should be using a risk cost analysis to show the potential of your organization becoming a victim at the current budget and the chance of becoming a victim if you had the budget you requested ($60M in legal fees vs. $60k in increased budget to keep the Hinton Laboratory up to date). Show the powers that be what the cost of failure is, what the financial damage can be, what the reputational damage to the organization and the leadership team can be. Show them what their personal liability and exposure can be if they fail to act.

Dookhan and Farak are the only two that ended up in jail over these scandals. Their supervisors are lucky they didn’t go to jail with them. Just because the management in these cases managed to avoid criminal charges, does not mean they may not find themselves on the short end of a civil suit for being derelict in their responsibilities. These weren’t single incidents that could have slipped by a busy manager, these issues both lasted 8 years before being detected.

The drug lab scandals have cost the taxpayers of Massachusetts nearly a billion dollars. Here we are seven years later, litigation is still ongoing and the state is still trying to figure out who should be reprimanded and which department needs to pay for the fall out.

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