By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Feb 1 (Reuters) - Florida's state police agency on Saturday announced a massive evidence review in thousands of drug cases handled by one crime-laboratory chemist, saying its findings could lead to some criminal cases being quashed and drug dealers set free.
The chemist is suspected of taking illegal drugs out of evidence storage and replacing them with over-the-counter medication, the agency said.
"It could be for personal use. It could be for trafficking. We don't know," Gerald Bailey, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), said at a news conference.
Bailey declined to identify the FDLE chemist, who was ordered to take vacation and accrued compensatory leave time pending disposition of the case.
He said the man has hired an attorney and is not cooperating in the investigation. He said the chemist will be fired if a case is documented.
"We've identified nearly 2,600 cases spanning 35 counties that chemist processed between 2006 and the present day," Bailey said.
"So far, we've identified several dozen evidence submissions where prescription drugs were substituted with over-the-counter medications. This has the potential of impacting hundreds of drug cases across our state."
Bailey said the investigation began when the Escambia County Sheriff's Office reported missing evidence in several drug cases last week.
Last Thursday, he said, it was determined that one chemist had handled laboratory submissions in which substances believed to be illegal drugs were replaced.
Bailey said there was no indication that the chemist was bribed to tamper with evidence and get cases dismissed.
Bailey said he never would have suspected the man, hired in 2006, of any wrongdoing.
"This is a shock and a disappointment," he said.
"This individual would have been way down on my list of potential bad apples." (Editing by Jon Herskovitz)