Monday, September 04, 2006

Crisis In Marion County Coroner's Office

The Marion Co. Coroner's Office is facing a major crisis, which is being ignored by our Marion Co. political leaders. And I include in that group Republicans on the city-county council who slept during a recent budget hearing for the office of Dr. Kenneth Ackles (D). The Star's Brendan O'Shaughnessy takes a much-needed look at what's happening in this office. Unfortunately, his editors did not give this story the prominent attention it deserves.

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.

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.
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:

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.


Anonymous said...

Good post AI. Did you notice that Ackles official bio on his website says that he serves as "ringside Doc" for the annual boxing matches held at the Indiana Black Expo? How can a chiropractor serve as a medical doctor for boxing events, let alone serve as county coroner?

Anonymous said...

Gary, between this and your Drummer post, you are the best reporter in Indianapolis this weekend.
You consistenly raise important questions about news that is being under-covered. Thus the public -- those who read the msm -- is being underserved.
Again, in defense of my friend Will Higgins -- who reported on the Polin Park deal twice now -- Will is a very talented writer but not an investigative type by assignment. The story is getting a light dusting because the editors are not throwing the resources at it.
Keep it up, Advance Indiana. You are carrying the day. I don't even live there anymore, and I know these are vital issues.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Ruth, Thanks for your kind comments. I'll do my part. But my observant readers are key to getting this information out. I rely enormously on them.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

But don't think Dr. McGoff was a saint...he, too, was a political hack. A medically-trained hack, but a hack nonetheless.

Your comment about race is unfortunately true. His chief deputy for awhile was a former Dem primary opponent, who has tremendous training and skills. I have heard that deputy (white) has left the office. (John Linehan)
He was a former sheriff's deputy who got much additional training in forensic pathology.

Did you know, under Indiana law, the only person who can arrest or serve warrants on the sheriff, is the coroner?

Read it and weep.

Gary R. Welsh said...

McGoff brought respectability to the office that had been badly tarnished by his incompetent predecessor, Karl Manders. Is McGoff politically active? Yes. Did he make the office a political cesspool? No.

Anonymous said...

Wow...hit a nerve, AI?

McGoff conducted some of the business as if it were a political cesspool.

I'm speaking specifically of the lease for office space, farmed out to Jon Bales, another political hack who's a member of the Metropolitan Devleopment Commission. They didn't need a broker, and Bales made a mint.

This is one of many offices that needs to go the way of township trustee--OUT.

Marion County can't seem to catch a break in this office.

Have you paid any attention to the surveyor's office? My party ran a pathetic broken down female attorney who has run for everything. Lo and behold, she won. Zero experience in a very important legal office...but she's had the brains to hire competent land professionals.

Dems, of course, but competent nonetheless.

The sad fact is, now that Dems can win almost everything on the ballot, due to shifting demographics, you're now seeing some less-than-qualified candidates run.

Kind of a payback for the hacks and idiots the Repubs put up for years when they couldn't I ened to do a rollcall here? Cottey, Mowery, et al

Still, I'd like to see my party do a better job flushing out candidates. Dr. Ackles came out of nowhere, tied up Ms. Carson and Carl Drummer in slating, and the rest is history.

Wilson46201 said...

Aloha !

Gary R. Welsh said...

Again, I didn't say McGoff wasn't political. Unfortunately, politics always seems to make its way into the leasing of any office space for government. Politicians have made wealthy people through insider real estate deals. If you don't believe me, just take a look at how Mayor Peterson's family earned their millions.

Anonymous said...

I have had the opportunity to talk with a national transportation department that made it perfectly clear, they would love to deal with Medical Examiners only. Coroners are nothing but political positions, they don't even have to be a doctor, let alone forensic pathologist.

If I recall correctly it was a coroner who tragically misidentified the Taylor University students. 2007 is knocking on the door! Time to wake up and get with it. Positions like the coroner need to go.

EXCELLENT post. Time for us to make sure this word gets out on this and Drummer.

Anonymous said...

I know exactly how the Peterson earned their millions. Honestly. Hell, Pete Peterson, the mayor's dad, to this day often helps do manual labor on their projects.

That has nothing to do with McGoff's insider lease deals with Bales.

I just think the words "crisis" and "cesspool" are a little strong.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Anon 6:53, no inference of dishonesty or illegality should be taken from my statement. It is quite easy for politicians to help their friends and comply with the letter of the law. It's done all the time.

Anonymous said...

Point made. It doesn't make it right.

Still, your choice of words is a little harsh, dontcha think?

Anonymous said...

Actually, no. Some of these pollies need a good scrubbing down with some Bar Keepers Friend and a good Brillo pad.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:03 edt, do you mention a good scrubbing with Bar Keeper's Friend because that is the brand of cleanser owned by Beurt SerVaas, former Republican head of the city county council? Was that a deft political analogy or merely coincidence? Either way, I am amused, and call it to the attention of those who may have missed the allusion.

And for those who might lack a history of Bar Keeper's Friend, it is a chemical found in Rhubarb, its polishing qualities discovered when rhubarb boiling in copper pots was found to have removed their layers of tarnish.

Please pardon the digression.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Very funny Chris. I didn't know that, but didn't Bart and Bert make a lot of money off a water company deal awhile back, which they negotiated together?

Gary R. Welsh said...

Uuhh, Beurt, that is.

Anonymous said...

You can't throwe an accusation like the Bart-Beurt thing, and not at least try to back it up. I'm pretty sure it's urban myth.

Where do you get this stuff?

Wilson46201 said...

I have always found it extremely odd that such a hyper-capitalist like SerVaas would facilitate "nationalizing" a privately-owned, seemingly-profitable water company. Usually the only time the SerVaas types want government intervention is when their business is going under and they need taxpayer cash to keep afloat.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Anon 7:21, the respective interests of Mssrs. Bart & Beurt in the water company were well-documented in the Star. Do your research.

Anonymous said...

do my research? How about providing some details.

I keep up on these things and don't remember it.

I'll gladly eat my words if the links provide info on inappropriate deals.

I just seriously doubt it exists.

Queen916 said...

Wilson46201- Did you know?

Julia Carson, congresswoman, attempted to control the Marion County Coroner's office when Dr. Ackles first went into the office. she also wanted to control and determine who would be contracted. She failed!

Check it out!

Anonymous said...

This guy is the picture of INCOMPETENCE! Since taking office, his staff routinely tells families to
call a funeral home and authorize release without coming to the scene of persons that their family doctor will not sign off on. In a show of
preferential treatment recently, Lavenia's funeral home did not want to take a decomp, so they did
what anyone else does: they called Monroe Gray, city-council pres & 'fireman' on IFD payroll.
Monroe had an engine go out, but the officer on that engine refused to have fireman transport a
decomp to Lavenia's. Next, Lavenia's called "Bones" on a cell phone. They demanded "Bones"
send the county's contract service to remove the decomp so that Lavenia's staff, wearing custom
embroidered shirts, would not get messy. "Bones" dispatched his Chief Deputy to the scene to
give a private funeral home PPE at county expense, so that Lavenia's would not get messy!

Anonymous said...

I, as a mere taxpayer of the state, am not directly affected by the topic at hand, but i must say that i definately share your sentiment. To allow politics to get in the way of the pathologists ability to properly perform their duties, as well as depriving hard working people of their means of employment is a travesty. I, for one, do not see the road to progress leading to outsourcing. It seems to me most strange that it would be in the best interest of marion county residents for the coroners office to take away jobs from marion county residents, just to grant them to people from other counties. That accompanied with the fact that our judicial system is already backed up enough without having to wait for autopsy results to come from a diffent area code makes me wonder if Kenneth Ackles should have stuck to what he had experience in. Perhaps he should have left the field of medical science to a qualified medical professional.

Anonymous said...

Someone should search out the "qualifications" for the African American autopsy assistants who are being hired as new county employees. Those with advanced degrees are being passed over because they are melanin challenged.