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UW pathologist offers criticism of Rock County Coroner

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Ted Sullivan
April 9, 2010
— A UW-Madison forensic pathologist who helps investigate deaths in Rock County wrote the Rock County Board on Thursday, saying he has had “numerous and ongoing difficulties working with the current Rock County coroner.”

“I hear continual complaints from law enforcement regarding case-based decision making and lack of cooperative attitude,” Michael Stier said. “And, as I’m sure many of you are aware, personnel issues chronically plague the current coroner’s office.”


Stier urged the board to switch from an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner when it met Thursday.


Board members voted 16-12 to delay their decision until a future date.


The board considered switching to a medical examiner’s office after complaints were filed against Coroner Jenifer Keach, alleging sexual discrimination, a hostile work environment and inappropriate behavior.


In response, Keach said disgruntled former employees are targeting her. She said their allegations are false and politically motivated.


People also have said the board’s choice between a coroner or medical examiner is political maneuvering to control the office.


In his letter, Stier said he wouldn’t include a “lengthy historical narrative” of his problems with Keach. Instead, he provided a recent example.


Stier said he was asked to do autopsies this week after deaths in Rock County. He said Keach demanded the autopsies be done at a non-university facility.


“Besides lacking the authority to do so, this was decided without any input from law enforcement or myself,” Stier said. “Utilization of the alternate morgue is more costly to your county, of less quality than the UW facility, and serves the personal political agenda of the current coroner.


“This type of selfish and authoritarian decision-making is intolerable,” Stier said.


On Thursday, about 20 people spoke in favor of keeping an elected coroner.


Jason Dowd accused the board of being greedy for power because it wants to hire and fire a medical examiner instead of having voters elect a coroner.


“There’s such arrogance here, saying that we’re going to take the voting rights away from people,” he said.


Dowd said appointing a medical examiner won’t prevent any problems with the office. He said county department heads have resigned or been fired recently for misconduct.


Tony Farrell, a volunteer at the coroner’s office, said Keach treats him with respect. He said she has never discriminated against him. He and several others suggested the board put a referendum on the ballot to allow voters to decide the issue.


Julie Spangler said a medical examiner’s office could cost more money, but others said the cost of a medical examiner’s office is the same.


Jennifer Youngblood said a medical examiner could be influenced to sign a death certificate a certain way. She said a coroner is independent.


Keach said she appreciated the support of everyone who spoke in favor of her.


“I’ve done my best to work with the county board on issues and work with law enforcement on issues,” she said.


Former Coroner Karen Gilbertson was arrested for stealing prescription drugs from death scenes in 2005. She later pleaded guilty to misconduct in public office and died while serving her sentence.


Prompted by the Gilbertson case, board members voted in 2005 to change the position in 2011 from an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner.


Board members voted in March 2009 to return to an elected coroner. They said the previous problem was the coroner and not the office.



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