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Cowlitz County coroner faces possible criminal charges following 'troubling' claims by staff

Coroner Tim Davidson stands outside the Cowlitz County Coroner's Office in early 2020.
Kari Plog
/
KNKX
Coroner Tim Davidson stands outside the Cowlitz County Coroner's Office in early 2020.

The coroner in Cowlitz County is facing potential criminal charges after two state investigations found he personally received more than $12,600 in reimbursements for county-paid travel expenses. 

Coroner Tim Davidson, who also serves as president of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (WACME), acknowledged that he had received the reimbursements for travel costs between February 2016 and May 2019. Davidson offered to repay the county with personal funds during an interview with state auditors in December 2020, according to records obtained by KNKX Public Radio. 

The fraud investigation by the Washington State Auditor was conducted alongside a Washington State Patrol criminal investigation. 

But before investigators discovered that Davidson had misappropriated public funds, four staff members in his office raised concerns about his leadership and what they called a “toxic” work environment. Their complaints against their boss and his second in command, which they filed reluctantly despite fears of retaliation, were the catalyst for both state investigations.

In written statements detailed in a report by the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, the employees accused Chief Deputy Coroner Brett Dundas of stealing narcotics from death scenes and driving under the influence while on duty. 

The employees reached out to the sheriff’s office in April 2019 because they said Davidson was not addressing their concerns.

A report by the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, which eventually was forwarded to the Washington State Patrol, noted there was not enough information to fully investigate all the claims. Still, the report revealed details that left Cowlitz County commissioners “deeply concerned,” prompting them to publicly release the state patrol’s report last month.

“This is necessary so that the public may fully understand the complete scope of allegations made against the Coroner’s Office,” commissioners said in a statement. 

Coroners are elected officials who are not legally obligated to follow county policies. That means coroners answer exclusively to the voters. If the conduct of a coroner is called into question, the only course of action is a recall election. 

Sabrina Fraidenburg, Cowlitz County’s human resources director, said employees who work for the coroner also are not subject to county oversight. 

“Elected Officials are the employer for their Office,” Fraidenburg wrote in an email to KNKX. “In general County Human Resources are available to Elected Officials and we work with them regularly, however we do not have any oversight in their Offices.”

Upon receiving the state patrol’s report, Fraidenburg said county leadership met with Davidson about the allegations against Dundas. She said the coroner is responsible for any “corrective actions of employees in his office.”  

Two of the employees who complained to the sheriff’s office about Davidson said the coroner made that lack of oversight known to his staff. Both of them, including one who is still employed with the coroner’s office, told investigators that Davidson “flaunts his elected status, saying that he is untouchable,” according to the report. 

Davidson did not respond to multiple emails or a phone call from KNKX requesting comment on the details of the complaints and subsequent investigations. Dundas, when reached by phone, declined to comment. 

Davidson started as a deputy coroner and autopsy technician for Cowlitz County in 2000. He was appointed coroner in February 2006, before being elected in November that year. In addition to his role leading WACME, he also previously served as president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. Davidson has traveled regularly on behalf of both organizations. He often spends time in Olympia, meeting with state lawmakers as a representative for elected coroners statewide.

‘TROUBLING’ CLAIMS

Records show all of the coroner’s office employees who complained — three deputy coroners and an autopsy technician — shared similar concerns about Davidson and Dundas, the chief deputy coroner. 

Two of them told sheriff’s deputies in written statements that they witnessed Dundas rifling through decedents’ personal belongings at death scenes, at times “picking up prescription bottles, reading the bottles then putting them back down,” according to the report. One of them said she witnessed Dundas putting pills in his mouth before leaving a scene where he had collected narcotics.

They also described witnessing regular behavior from Dundas while he was working and driving to and from scenes that they believed to be consistent with drug use, such as confusion, slurred speech, profuse sweating and large mood swings. One employee cited an instance of discrepancies in prescription logs after Dundas had collected narcotics from a death scene.

The sheriff’s investigation cites an accountability audit from 2017, during which state auditors found deficiencies in internal controls for collecting and logging prescriptions. Specifically, auditors said there was “a risk that prescriptions found at the scene are being misappropriated,” and recommended the office strengthen its controls.

The sheriff’s office reported that the “credible” belief that narcotics were being stolen from death scenes warranted further investigation. The report noted that Davidson was “well aware” of the suspicions from his staff, but allowed Dundas to keep the key to the storage unit where prescriptions were kept. The investigator noted the improper handling of narcotics was among “the most troubling aspects of this investigation.”

The Washington State Patrol determined that it could not investigate the claims about narcotics theft or use on the job, as any relevant evidence was fleeting.

“These allegations, while concerning, are not such that they can be investigated as it is so long after the fact,” the report states. “Therefore, no criminal investigation into these allegations can be conducted.”

The complainants also said the chief deputy coroner’s behavior interfered with his ability to do his job. In one instance, according to an employee’s 11-page written statement, Dundas called a wrong number and shared information about a decedent, thinking he was talking to the deceased person’s son.  

“I am not sure where to go from here,” she wrote. “I am concerned for our county as I don’t believe Deputy Chief Dundas should be driving any vehicles anywhere.”

'I am not sure where to go from here,' one complainant wrote. 'I am concerned for our county as I don't believe Deputy Chief Dundas should be driving any vehicles anywhere.'

Another employee, also in a written statement, expressed concern about some of the death investigations handled by Dundas. She questioned an approach Dundas described to her as the “three Fs rule” when determining the cause of death in certain cases: if a decedent is “fat, forty and female,” she said, Dundas determines the death was caused by a cardiac event. 

“She believes there should be a serious review of findings of causes of deaths especially as they related to women who are overweight, in their forties and are a female,” an investigator with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office wrote in the report.  

In her written statement, the woman also said Dundas often berated her for asking basic questions about the job, resulting in emotional distress. 

“I went and got a concealed weapon’s license due to my concern of safety,” she wrote in an eight-page statement to investigators. “I was scared of (Dundas), and that he could be a threat to me.” 

The woman later sought counseling through an employee assistance program from the county, to treat anxiety and depression that she says resulted from her experiences in the coroner’s office.

All of the complainants said they brought these claims to Coroner Tim Davidson. Not only did Davidson ignore their concerns, they said, but he also discouraged them from talking to human resources. 

“Despite numerous complaints from his employees about Chief Deputy Coroner Brett Dundas, there does not appear to be any action taken, as the witnesses continue to see behavior from Dundas that is indicative of drug abuse,” the sheriff’s report states. 

'Despite numerous complaints from his employees about Chief Deputy Coroner Brett Dundas, there does not appear to be any action taken, as the witnesses continue to see behavior from Dundas that is indicative of drug abuse.'

Only one of the complainants is still employed in the Cowlitz County Coroner’s Office. She declined to give a written statement to investigators, who noted in their report that she was “very afraid that if she speaks out she will lose her job.” 

One of the former employees said her hours were cut back after she filed a complaint with human resources. She resigned in November 2018, a year after being hired into what she considered a dream job, according to her written statement.

Another complainant resigned and took a job as chief deputy coroner in another county nearly 200 miles away. At one point, records show, she was commuting there from Cowlitz County.

MISAPPROPRIATED FUNDS

The Washington State Auditor released its report from the fraud investigation into the Cowlitz County coroner in April. Auditors determined a loss of public funds totaling $12,602.71, stemming from Davidson’s travel costs between February 2016 and May 2019. 

In his capacity as president of WACME, the state trade association, Davidson traveled to attend or present at trainings and conferences as well as legislative meetings. He also attended conferences and performed accreditation audits on behalf of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (IACME). 

Both associations reimburse individuals for incurred travel expenses related to their business, according to the fraud report. Records show Davidson was reimbursed personally by WACME and IACME — $7,777.90 and $4,824.81, respectively — for expenses that were paid by Cowlitz County.

In September 2019, Davidson reached out to the treasurer of WACME asking for the total amount he had been reimbursed by the organization. Davidson subsequently deposited a total of $14,300 to WACME, records show. He told state auditors in his interview in December 2020 that he made the deposits to “bring them all current and pay them off,” according to a transcript.  

When asked why he didn’t repay Cowlitz County, Davidson said his understanding was that as long as the county’s budget stayed positive it was “under my control for how I spend those funds.”  

Davidson said in the interview that he “took some bad advice and used that training money on further training and personal student loans and stuff like that.” He said he would work with auditors to “make this right.” 

By the time the state audit report was released, the county already had filed a report with the state patrol. Auditors forwarded their investigation to Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Jurvakainen, who requested assistance from the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to “avoid any potential conflict of interest,” according to a statement from Jurvakainen’s office. Kasey Vu, senior deputy prosecutor for Clark County, told KNKX in an email that a decision about whether Davidson will face criminal charges is pending.

Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
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