Let's begin by taking a look at the man who's in charge of this office. Dr. Kenneth Ackles is the elected coroner of Marion Co. Don't be fooled by his title though. He is not a forensic pathologist. He's not even a medical doctor. He is a chiropractor who has never observed an autopsy because he doesn't like being in the same room as a dead person. His primary concern since taking office has been to hire as many political cronies as his county budget will permit, and to provide each of them with take-home cars, including an office receptionist. The professional performance of his office's statutory duties is the least of his concerns. He leaves it to his political cronies to administer the office while he tends to his chiropractic business. O'Shaughnessy was more polite about Ackles role. He writes:
In Indiana, coroners are elected. Theirs is a part-time position that requires no medical training. Ackles, a chiropractor who took over the coroner's office in 2005, signs death certificates, while his deputies, numbering about 20, perform death-scene investigations.
Until last year, Marion Co. contracted with IUPUI's department of forensics to perform all medical autopsies. After Ackles took over in 2005 from former coronor Dr. John McGoff (R)(a real medical doctor), his office couldn't figure out how to process invoices submitted by IUPUI for the services. As a consequence, IUPUI went months without being paid for the services. Frustrated at being paid the same contracted amount for several years, IUPUI announced it was terminating its contract with the coroner's office. Mayor Bart Peterson's office rightfully reacted with alarm to IUPUI's decision because of the serious implications of losing these services to the city's law enforcement efforts. Mayor Peterson quickly dispatched his then-deputy, Melina Kennedy, to plead with IUPUI to reconsider its decision. Her efforts failed to convince IUPUI to renew its contract with the coroner's office.
IUPUI forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Radentz provided a solution for Ackles' office. He and two other members of the IUPUI forensic staff formed a new company, which offered contractual services to perform the same services for the coroner's office. Under the terms of a 5-year contract Ackles' office entered into with Radentz, his firm was to be paid about $858,000 the first year, which was expected to be increased by about $25,000 a year according to O'Shaughnessy. His staff performs more than 1,000 autopsies a year and "less-thorough examinations" of as many bodies each year according to O'Shaughnessy. Without any prior warning, Ackles terminated the contract with Radentz' firm in June just 8 months into the term of the contract. O'Shaughnessy reports:
Coroner Kenneth Ackles terminated the five-year contract in June, about eight months after signing it. The effective contract termination date is Dec. 19. Ackles declined to give a reason for his action, or to detail what he intends to do next . . .
Dr. Stephen Radentz, a partner in the practice, said the county has given little indication of whether it wants to hire a replacement firm or simply renegotiate its contract with the three-doctor firm. The uncertainty already has caused one partner in the firm to take a new job as a medical examiner in Iowa in mid-September.
Radentz said Ackles' move threatens to leave the county with a morgue piling up with bodies and unfinished cases after a summer filled with homicides. As of Friday, the county had seen 96 homicides this year, putting 2006 on a pace to be the deadliest year since 1998.
Radentz speculated the cancellation was part of a bid by the city to force the firm's employees to become county employees.
Shockingly, city-county council members sat listless during a recent hearing on the coroner's budget. A recently-hired controller for the coroner's office presented Ackles' budget as he sat next to her. On the few occasions when he did speak, he spoke briefly, struggling to complete a sentence. She told the council members of the recent termination of the contract, a move she insisted was intended to eke out additional savings to the taxpayers. She complained that the coroner's office was "flying blind" under the terms of the contract it negotiated with Radentz' firm because it was uncertain what the annual costs would be under it. She also complained that Radentz' firm made money from autopsies it performed for neighboring counties--money she thought belonged to the coroner's office. O'Shaughnessy did not get that explanation from Ackles' office, but he got something similar to that from city controller Bob Clifford. He writes:
While Ackles would not provide details about the situation in his office, City Controller Bob Clifford said Ackles expressed objections about the firm's billing practices to him.If Ackles was truly interested in saving money for the taxpayers, he would stop hiring unqualified political cronies to work in his office and stop providing them take-home cars. What he's really trying to do is to treat the professional forensic pathologists as if they are no different from the other employees working in his office. While Ackles offers assurances there is no risk of the city going without these services, he clearly is playing with fire. As O'Shaughnessy reports:
Clifford said Ackles balked at the firm's use of Marion County space and supplies to conduct out-of-county autopsies that it then charged those counties to perform. He said Ackles didn't like that the firm charged the prosecutor's office for its doctors' testimony.
Radentz said the firm charges $800 for out-of-county autopsies, and that it performs about 225 such autopsies a year. Without that income, it would have to charge Marion County more, he said. Its three doctors each make about $150,000 a year, he said.
Without elaborating, Ackles indicated the work of the coroner's office would go on uninterrupted despite the cancellation of the contract."There's always provisions to represent the citizens of Marion County," he said. "The office will be maintained to the utmost in reference to the citizens, and everything is in place."
But experts said forensic pathologists are in short supply, so finding and hiring them can take months. Only a few hundred such doctors practice in the country, about a dozen in Indiana, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners.
Dr. Toni Laskey, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University and Riley Hospital for Children, said an autopsy by a forensic pathologist is crucial to understanding or prosecuting a child's death. Laskey, who sits on the state's recently created fatality review team for children, said the group has a good relationship with Radentz' firm. She said the firm performs autopsies when foul play is suspected for more than 20 counties in Central Indiana.
"If they leave, it will be devastating," Laskey said.
Sadly, race seems to be the biggest factor in Ackles' decision. Since taking office, his office has pretty much adopted a policy of only hiring African-Americans. The biggest problem his staff seems to have with Radentz and his staff is that they are not African-Americans. Radentz and his staff work independently and professionally apart from Ackles' politically-driven staff. They have no day-to-day control over what his staff does, and that's the real crux of their problem with them.
The legislature currently has an interim study committee looking into the elected county coroner system we have in Indiana. The committee would be wise to take notice of what is happening here in Marion Co. We need to make, at a minimum, the necessary statutory changes to prevent unqualified political hacks from being elected to run our coroner's office. Time is running out here in Marion Co.
The Star should not end its coverage of this story here. There needs to be much more follow up. The newspaper needs to look closely at the hiring practices of the office. Who is being hired? What are those persons qualifications? Why are take-home cars being given to certain employees, including an office receptionist? And what about the missing items from the property room? Didn't Ackles' staff wrongly lay blame on a hold-over from McGoff's staff for missing property as part of an effort to get rid of him? Has the real culprit been identified and appropriately punished? Take a close look at how he is spending money in his budget compared to that of former Coroner Dr. John McGoff. There's much more to this story that's yet to be reported.