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Pierce County medical examiner faces accusations from whistleblower

medical examiner van
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press

UPDATE, Feb. 1: Pierce County's medical examiner faces another complaint from his second-in-command, according to a complaint obtained by KNKX. This one was sent to regulators with the state Department of Health, her attorney Joan Mell said. 

The chief medical examiner with Pierce County is accused of violating a laundry list of laws and standards, according to a whistleblower complaint filed with human resources Thursday.

The second-in-command at the Medical Examiner’s Office accused Thomas B. Clark of altering death certificates, mismanaging evidence and creating a toxic work environment, according to the complaint.

“Dr. Clark reaches inappropriate conclusions about cause and manner of death through his deliberate disregard of forensic evidence,” the filing states.

Instances detailed in the complaint, filed by associate medical examiner Megan Quinn, paint a picture of a medical examiner who is often at odds with his colleagues, law enforcement and families of decedents.

“Dr. Clark has said to me that I should only keep autopsy photos that ‘show what we want them to show,’ and otherwise destroy the rest,” Quinn wrote in the complaint. “I believe it is his practice to omit documentation of findings that are inconsistent with his conclusions.”

Clark, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the complaint.

“We are aware of the complaint, are undertaking a thorough investigation and will take appropriate action in response to any findings,” said Libby Catalinich, Pierce County’s spokeswoman. “We are committed to upholding the highest medical and ethical standards in the Medical Examiner’s Office.”

The complaint notes special measures to be taken in regard to witnesses.

“Dr. Clark’s established vindictive nature warrant (sic) additional safeguards in this instance,” Quinn states in the complaint, adding that staff have “expressed fear to be alone with him.”

This isn’t the first time Clark has been named in a whistleblower complaint. In 2016, he was the subject of an investigation in which he was found to be “arrogantly vindictive” and a “bully,” according to the newest complaint.

“His bullying behavior remains unchecked,” Quinn wrote in the current filing. “Staff are concerned that he is monitoring them remotely by video and/or audio. He shares private information about staff with other staff and with individuals not employed at the (Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office).”

Other parts of the complaint accuse Clark of shoddy or dishonest work, such as regularly altering death certificates without the consent of the examining pathologist and refusing a detective’s request for a blood sample in an investigation of an officer-involved shooting.

“This detective needed lab results quickly and was willing to cover the costs of labs,” the complaint says. “There were three law enforcement officers on administrative leave waiting for clearance to return to work.”

He's also accused of declining to delve into the recent death of a 15-month-old girl, which Quinn deemed to be suspicious.

“(P)ediatric specialists who treated her were highly concerned about inflicted injury and intentional suffocation based on external evidence of injury,” the complaint states. “Dr. Clark prematurely declared the cause an accidental overlay resulting in asphyxiation.”

Additionally, Quinn’s complaint details an instance in which Clark tampered with a death certificate she issued, without her consent, related to a body found under “suspicious circumstances.”

“The decedent was found in a car trunk rolled in a carpet,” Quinn wrote. “Dr. Clark wanted me to report it as an accidental overdose. The decedent’s presentation was inconsistent with a routine accidental overdose.”

Quinn has reported to Clark since she was hired to the Medical Examiner’s Office in August. Her attorney, Joan Mell, says the department has felt like the “Twilight Zone” since then, and that Clark’s management “became intolerable” for her client.

Clark assumed his role in 2010.

During the investigation, both doctors will work alternating shifts, Mell said, to keep them apart.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.