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DOH investigators say layoffs payback for inspector general probe


ALBANY -- A state narcotics unit that specializes in prescription-drug investigations is being decimated by the layoffs of nearly 3,500 Public Employees Federation workers.

People inside the unit who spoke on the condition they not be identified because they are not authorized to comment publicly allege the layoffs in the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement were designed to punish rank-and-file members of a unit where top DOH officials are the subject of ongoing investigations by the state Inspector General and the Office of the Comptroller.

The state Health Department issued notices this week telling 11 of 17 investigators that their positions were being abolished, according to a person in the unit. The person said that their jobs were not targeted three months ago when the state identified the units and employees that would be laid off due to a state budget crisis.

Since then, Inspector General Ellen Biben and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli have launched investigations into allegations that top Health Department officials may have misappropriated BNE funds and used internal investigations to target employees for personal reasons. Both probes are ongoing, and include an examination of travel-abuse allegations against top DOH officials.

"It's curious that we weren't targeted before but now we are," one employee said. "This has nothing to do with sour grapes about the job; everywhere you turn you hear people talking about how we are in an abuse epidemic involving prescription drugs."

Jeffrey R. Gordon, a health department spokesman, did not directly address the employees' allegation that the BNE jobs were eliminated as part of retribution.

"The changes reflect the shift of enforcement priorities from a focus on street level crime, which is appropriately handled by law enforcement, to a clear emphasis on the diversion of prescription drug in the health care delivery system and interventions to reduce prescription drug addiction and abuse," Gordon said.

Recently, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, visited a Cohoes pharmacy to draw attention to prescription abuse and calling for a prescription-monitoring database.

"We've had a database like this for six years ... What else is the health department not telling Sen. Schumer's office or the governor's office," a BNE employee said.

BNE is based in Troy with investigators stationed from New York City to Buffalo. Under state law the investigators have unique authority to examine medical records without a court order. They focus largely on illegal distribution of prescription drugs by doctors, pharmacists and drug addicts.

Kenneth Post, a former BNE director and Ulster County sheriff, has publicly criticized the health department's management of the BNE and accused top officials of failing to correct problems noted in a scathing inspector general's report issued two years ago. He said the layoffs are "payback."

"It will absolutely cripple the effort and law enforcement will not be able to pick up the pieces," Post said. "The BNE has a high degree of expertise in prescription drug and controlled substance diversion issues and it won't be replaced. It will be devastating at a time when New York is faced with serious prescription drug abuse problems."

The BNE has also worked closely with the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor in New York City. That office said BNE investigators were integral to a case that broke open this year when 31 members of a drug trafficking ring were indicted on charges they pumped 43,000 prescription pills, worth $1 million, into New York City's oxycodone black market.

The suspects were accused of using stolen prescription pads and complicit "customers" to obtain hundreds of prescriptions from 22 small pharmacies spread across Staten Island and the New York City area. The suspects used a complicit office manager who worked for a surgeon where the prescription pads were stolen. If a pharmacy called the surgeon's office to check the validity of the prescription the employee would tell the pharmacy it was OK, according to the charges.

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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