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State launches investigation of complaints against Pierce County medical examiner

Medical examiner van
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press

The state body that oversees doctors has opened an investigation into the Pierce County medical examiner, escalating turmoil in an office that’s been under scrutiny since a whistleblower complaint surfaced in January.

Thomas Clark already is subject to an internal investigation in Pierce County, after his second-in-command accused him of altering death certificates, mismanaging evidence and violating a slew of laws and standards.

Clark, through his attorney Jack Connelly, has denied the claims from Associate Medical Examiner Megan Quinn. Connelly has called the allegations "vindictive," telling KNKX Public Radio on Thursday that his client welcomes the state’s investigation.

Quinn has since been placed on administrative leave and lodged a retaliation complaint against county officials, according to a letter from her attorney. It says Quinn’s temporary ouster is a direct response to her decision to speak out against her boss. A county spokeswoman has said the decision to place Quinn on leave for "possible misconduct" may have been misconstrued, but stressed it was the right action for staff at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The scope of the case grew this week as commissioners within the state Department of Health launched an investigation into Quinn’s complaint, filed four weeks ago.

It could take months before any conclusive action is taken. The Washington Medical Commission has the power to impose a range of penalties, including suspending a doctor's license to practice.

"We’re proud of our process even though it takes a while," said Stephanie McManus, the commission’s public information officer. "We don’t ever want to accuse someone or take disciplinary action without it being thoroughly investigated."

McManus says it’s rare for the commission to investigate medical examiners. Only six Washington counties have medical examiners, licensed doctors with forensic training; most counties have coroners who are elected and not necessarily medical experts. In some cases, a county prosecutor or sheriff serves as coroner.

The Washington Medical Commission — a 21-member body made up of mostly of physicians appointed by the governor — has jurisdiction only over licensed doctors, such as Clark.

Connelly, Clark’s attorney, says Quinn’s complaints are rooted in "inexperience." Quinn, who has worked in several medical examiner and coroner offices throughout her career, started at Pierce County in August.

"The statements that she is making are not true," Connelly said. "She has exaggerated and fabricated a number of statements that she's made, and we'll show that during an investigation."

Quinn is on paid leave until March 29, unless the county’s investigation wraps up sooner. Before removing her from the office, a collective effort was brewing among fellow medical examiner staff to denounce Clark.

A letter from Julie Yust, a union representative for the employees, says bargaining unit members were preparing to deliver a letter of no confidence to County Executive Bruce Dammeier on Feb. 22. Quinn was removed from the office the day before.

The letter states the county’s action caused a chilling effect and "effectively silenced" their voices.  

The Washington Medical Commission got more than 1,800 complaints last year and investigated 717 of them. McManus said complaints come from a variety of sources, including patients, their families, hospital staff, government agencies, police and courts.  

In 2017, the commission opened an investigation into two Spokane medical examiners after several families raised questions about cause-of-death determinations, according to The Spokesman-Review. The commission reviewed 14 of the office’s cases and ruled that the medical examiners "met the standard of care," the newspaper reported.

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.