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Pierce County medical examiner faces second complaint from staff member

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press

The Pierce County medical examiner is facing a second complaint about his job performance from his second-in-command.

Megan Quinn, the county’s associate medical examiner, sent the complaint this week to regulators with the state Department of Health, her attorney said. 

She accused her boss, Thomas B. Clark, of conducting "substandard death investigations," failing to perform autopsies when they are warranted, and "instructing staff to retain only case photographs that support cause and manner of death determinations and delete the rest," among other charges, according to a copy of the complaint shared with KNKX.

Quinn’s allegations overlap with those in an internal complaint she filed against Clark last week with Pierce County Human Resources. Quinn started in her position in August. Clark has been medical examiner since 2010. 

Among the most serious accusations is that Clark failed to adequately investigate the deaths of several infants, leaving surviving children in situations where they could be at risk.

Quinn cited two cases, one from 2016 and one from January, in which Clark declared infant deaths "accidental" when Quinn believed lingering questions in the cases meant they should have been deemed "undetermined." Clark’s declarations led law enforcement officials to close investigations, she said.

In a 2017 case, Quinn said, Clark "declined jurisdiction" in the death of a child despite a history of child abuse in the case, questions raised by law enforcement and pediatricians, and the involvement of Child Protective Services. 

Clark’s attorney called the allegations "fabricated" and "vindictive."

"We don’t mind the investigation by the state," attorney Jack Connelly said. "I think the complaint that she has made is really, it’s false. It’s really pushing. It’s attempting to create controversy and create issues that don’t exist."

Quinn’s attorney, Joan Mell, said her client is "confident in her opinion."

"She’s not going to be bullied and intimidated by the likes of Jack Connelly, who Dr. Clark hired to tell his story or make it up," Mell said.

She's not going to be bullied and intimidated by the likes of Jack Connelly, who Dr. Clark hired to tell his story or make it up.

Quinn’s complaint to the state could make its way to the Washington Medical Commission, the body that reviews complaints against doctors and can suspend their licenses to practice.

A Washington Medical Commission official said this week that the commission has not received the complaint, but the intake process can take up to three weeks. Investigations take about six months to complete, according to the commission's website.

Among the charges Quinn leveled against Clark is "dishonesty."

She cites a recent case in which Clark fought the railroad BNSF in court for a video of a man being struck and killed by a train in Puyallup in 2017.

BNSF said Clark could view the video, but not keep a copy of it due to concerns the sensitive material could be leaked to the public. Clark said the video was part of an official inquest before a jury, and subpoenaed the railroad for it. 

Quinn said Clark came up with the idea to hold an inquest solely to get a copy of the video.

"Retention of the video was not medically necessary," Quinn said in her complaint. "Dr. Clark fixated on this particular video because BNSF did not readily accept his authority."

Washington’s Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against Clark in the case Thursday. The judges said a coroner can only issue a subpoena "when the coroner has actually asked the superior court to provide a jury" for an inquest, which Clark did not do.

Quinn also accused Clark of "incompetence, negligence, and malpractice," saying he altered death certificates without consulting the doctors who performed the examinations.

She said Clark’s "preconceived biases" include the notions that "asthma does not exist" and that people "cannot die" of Alzheimer’s disease.

In her complaint filed with the county last week, Quinn said Clark also dismissed the county's opioid crisis as "not real" and has declined to collaborate with local and federal agencies in collecting data or raising awareness.

Quinn’s separate "whistleblower" complaint to county officials will be the subject of an internal probe, a county spokeswoman said.

"We are committed to a timely, thorough investigation," said spokeswoman Libby Catalinich. "To the extent that any other organizations are involved, we will look to collaborate in ways that preserve public funds and avoid any duplication of effort."

A 2016 investigation initiated by Pierce County following a separate whistleblower complaint concluded Clark was "arrogantly vindictive" and sometimes "deliberately cruel" to his employees.

The 2016 report also chronicled concerns by Clark’s staff that he has an unusually close relationship with organ donation organizations and his focus on procuring organs jeopardized death investigations. The probe concluded organ procurement was one of the medical examiner’s "highest priorities," but the focus was not inappropriate or unethical.

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