State spent $325K on equipment for public safety, hasn’t used it

On Special Assignment

The state spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a new piece of equipment for the Scientific Lab that was supposed to help prosecute criminals.

That was about three years ago.

To this day, it hasn’t been used in a single court case, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Scientists analyze evidence in criminal cases at the New Mexico Scientific Laboratories in Albuquerque so that prosecutors can build better cases against criminals.

That’s why legislators unanimously agreed on a Capital Outlay Bill, which included hundreds of thousands of dollars for, what they thought, would improve the state scientific lab.

State Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque) was one of those legislators.

“We have to come through on the promises we make and that starts with making sure that every dollar we invest in public safety, actually works to make the public more safe,” he said.

Below is an excerpt from Capital Outlay Package the Legislature approved in 2015:

The Department of Health said it spent $324,880 in capital outlay funding more than three years ago to buy a new instrument to enhance drug testing evidence in DWI and sexual assault cases.

Since then, the Department said the costly equipment hasn’t provided evidence for a single court case.

“My initial reaction is of course frustration,” Sen. Candelaria said. “If there’s not a good reason for these delays, then we have to come clean to the public and explain why and that is not a good use of our resources.”

Dr. Samuel Kleinman is the Deputy Bureau Chief of Forensic Toxicology with the State Health Department.

When asked if this is an efficient use of taxpayer resources, he said, “Absolutely. I understand your concern because it is a large sum of money and we are working diligently to get it online and fully operational.”

The high-tech piece of equipment at the center of it all is called the Orbitrap mass analyzer.

Scientists at the lab are supposed to be using it to test blood and urine samples from DWI suspects and from victims of sexual assault to show which drugs were in their system.

“The instrument will allow the Toxicology Bureau to analyze more drugs in a faster timeframe and provide higher quality, defensible evidence for the courts,” Dr. Kleinman said.

However, it hasn’t done that yet, and here’s why:

The Health Department said it bought the instrument at the end of 2015.

Then, a few staffers were trained on it in 2016, but all of them eventually left the Department.

In 2017, the department said, a power outage damaged a faulty part and nearly another year went by before it was fixed.

“It does seem like a long time, and it would be preferable that it didn’t take that long, but talking to the manufacturer, there were multiple parties involved,” Dr. Kleinman said. “So, getting them to agree to fix it and take responsibility, as well as having the availability of a trained technician to come in and install the new pump, and then do the exact same checks to make sure that the instrument is viable for use, it takes a long time. It’s a very specialized instrument.”

That brings us to April 2018 when, the Health Department said, the Orbitrap was finally working again. It was back to square one.

Three new employees were trained.

Now they’re in the midst of a long process of finding out what kinds of drugs the instrument can analyze, developing a method all chemists can use to do that and making sure the results are accurate.

Dr. Kleinman said that crucial process could take at least a year.

Add it all up, and that means it could be four years since the state spent nearly $324,880 on the instrument before it’s finally put to use, providing prosecutors with evidence they can use in court.

“I would like to restart the timer from when the instrument started working again,” Dr. Kleinman. “Although the instrument has been in the house for three years, it was out of service for nearly a year and now we are starting to build it back up.”

The instrument should eventually allow the lab to analyze a wider variety of new, synthetic drugs.

For instance, the department said it currently can only look for three types of fentanyl, a powerful, man-made painkiller. However, there may actually be more than 30 varieties of the drug in the U.S.

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