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Crime lab chemist removed as Florida probes prescription drug evidence tampering

Posted at 10:43 PM, Feb 01, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-01 22:43:56-05

(CNN) — A chemist in a Florida crime lab is being investigated for allegedly switching prescription drug evidence with over-the-counter medicine, possibly compromising drug convictions, authorities said Saturday.

“This is significant. We’ve never had to undertake something like this before,” Gretl Plessinger, chief spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), told CNN’s Nick Valencia.

The chemist, whose name wasn’t released, has been relieved of duty from the FDLE’s Pensacola Regional Crime Laboratory while the investigation continues, Commissioner Gerald Bailey said in a statement. No one has been arrested in the case.

Since 2006, the chemist worked 2,600 cases for 80 law enforcement agencies in 35 Florida counties and 12 judicial circuits, authorities said. That’s one percent of the volume of evidence handled by the lab, and FDLE agents will head to the affected counties on Monday, Plessinger said.

Investigators will be deployed Monday to those impacted agencies to see whether evidence handled by the chemist was compromised, state authorities said.

Bailey said some drug convictions could be overturned, CNN affiliate WCTV reported. The station cited Bailey as saying the chemist has hired a lawyer.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office would assist in the investigation.

“Our battle against prescription drug abuse in Florida has been very successful over the last three years, and I will not tolerate any actions that compromise our continued success in ridding our state of this problem,” Bondi said in a statement.

“This situation simply underlines the extent of the problem our country faces with prescription drug abuse,” Bondi added.

The investigation began last week when investigators discovered missing prescription pain pills from the evidence room at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, authorities said. The missing prescription drugs had been replaced with over-the-counter medications.

On Thursday, investigators determined that each case with missing prescription drugs had been analyzed by the one chemist, and authorities opened a criminal investigation.

CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton, Nick Valencia and Mark Morgenstein contributed to this report.