Pierce County whistleblower, medical examiner agree to settlements totaling more than $700K | KNKX

Pierce County whistleblower, medical examiner agree to settlements totaling more than $700K

Oct 1, 2019

Megan Quinn was placed on administrative leave less than a month after she accused the chief medical examiner of mismanaging death investigations in Washington’s second-largest county.

And while Quinn will finish out the year with the title of associate medical examiner, she won’t return to work again. Instead, she will leave the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office at the end of the year with a settlement package valued at more than $450,000, according to an agreement announced Tuesday.

“I am proud of my work for the County, and I am disappointed to announce my resignation," Quinn told KNKX in a written statement. "I filed the whistleblower complaint at great risk to myself, both personally and professionally, but I did so out of respect for and commitment to the people of Pierce County."

Quinn added that she will continue to advocate for Pierce County's citizens. Her agreement with the county relieves her of day-to-day duties in the Medical Examiner's Office. 

"Dr. Quinn shall have no further obligations to perform the functions of her position as Pierce County’s Associate Medical Examiner effective today’s date,” according to a copy of the agreement obtained by KNKX Public Radio. “Dr. Quinn agrees that until December 31, 2019, she will continue to perform any private contract work on weekends and after 4:30 Monday through Friday.”

The news comes a week after the county executive introduced his two-year budget that proposes $1.9 million in new spending aimed at “restructuring and remaking” the office. And it comes two weeks after Medical Examiner Thomas Clark announced his intent to retire by the end of 2020.

The county also reached a settlement with Clark, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by KNKX. He will be paid $250,000 within 10 days of his last day of employment with the county, plus accrued benefits — either Dec. 31, 2020, or the completion of outstanding work after his replacement is hired. That's nearly an entire year's salary; Clark earned nearly $260,000 in 2018. 

The agreement, dated Sept. 5, states: “Upon completion of such work, Dr. Clark shall be placed on ‘on-call’ status through December 31, 2020, and will be available to the County for transition purposes, consultation, needed participation/testimony, or special projects as directed by his superior(s), but he shall not report to work at the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office."

County Executive Bruce Dammeier told County Council members last week that his budget proposal is the first step to “closing what’s been a difficult chapter in our Medical Examiner’s Office.” 

“We need to restore confidence and stability for our residents, our citizens, our taxpayers and for our employees,” Dammeier said, during a presentation to council members last week. “We have a lot of work left to do.”

Turmoil has loomed over Pierce County’s medical examiner for years. Tension escalated in January, when Quinn filed a whistleblower complaint against Clark, accusing him of wide-ranging misconduct including cutting corners in death investigations and creating a toxic work environment. Clark first faced accusations of mismanagement in a complaint that surfaced in 2016. 

Quinn, the office’s second-in-command, filed her internal complaint and another with the state Medical Commission just six months after taking the job with Pierce County. Both investigations are active and ongoing. 

Another investigation into Quinn, which the county launched after she was placed on administrative leave in February, concluded with Tuesday’s announcement. She had claimed it was an act of retaliation, which the county has denied. 

“An independent investigation into complaints raised by employees of the Medical Examiner's Office has been resolved by agreement,” a news release on the agreement states. “No findings of wrongdoing were made regarding Dr. Quinn.”

Families and former employees also spoke out against Clark in recent months. In earlier interviews with KNKX, they echoed Quinn’s complaints and expressed alarm over what they say is Clark’s tendency to draw hasty conclusions when determining causes of death in some cases. 

Clark has yet to speak with KNKX Public Radio regarding the allegations against him. His attorney has denied the claims, calling them “fabricated” and “vindictive.”

Earlier this month, Pierce County announced Clark will continue as the top official in charge of death investigations and autopsies through the end of 2020, or until officials can recruit a full-time replacement. 

Carol Mitchell, senior counsel for justice services at Pierce County, will provide additional support for day-to-day management of personnel and other operations during the transition — an effort that could pose a challenge amid a national shortage of certified forensic pathologists. 

County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich said the recruitment process is beginning immediately. 

“We’re confident we will be able to recruit a talented chief medical examiner,” Catalinich said. “But we’re fully aware of the number of open positions across the country, so we know it will take some time.”

Quinn’s settlement was quietly approved during the same council meeting Dammeier introduced his 2020-21 budget proposal — which includes a nearly 26 percent increase in spending for the Medical Examiner’s Office. 

If approved by the County Council in November, it would create six new full-time positions in an office that handles roughly 1,400 death investigations each year. The new jobs, according to county budget documents, would include an administrative assistant, two autopsy technicians, two death investigators, and a lead death investigator.  

The medical examiner is the county’s highest paid position, which is held by a medical doctor who is certified in forensic pathology. Clark’s primary role is to perform autopsies, oversee investigations and issue death determinations.

Since 2010, when Clark took over the office, the county has seen a steady decline in autopsies performed. County budget documents show the percentage of death investigations in which an autopsy was conducted decreased 27.7 percent over the past nine years. Concurrently, the percentage of deaths investigated by the office increased by 24.7 percent.

Clark also spearheaded a partnership with private organ donation companies, allowing them 24-hour access to on-site facilities — a first-of-its-kind arrangement on the West Coast, according to documents obtained by KNKX. The program has generated unease among many medical examiner employees, according to documents related to the 2016 complaint.  

In March, KNKX Public Radio published an in-depth investigation of the accusations against Clark, after reviewing more than 1,500 pages of county documents. It included a report from one expert who was paid to review cases upon the request of Quinn’s attorney. 

After reviewing documents from 65 cases — including an infant death investigation that Quinn says prompted her to file the whistleblower complaint — Dr. Thomas Andrew authored a letter calling attention to “a disturbing pattern of investigative and autopsy inadequacies that could have substantial impact … on the most basic function of the medical examiner’s office.”

Additionally, he wrote the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office appears to have “a pattern of suboptimal investigation and autopsy in infant and child cases reported under suspicious circumstances.”

Nina Summerrise says the county’s resolution isn’t enough.

Summerrise continues to seek closure nearly a year after the body of her son, Ian Sherls, was found wedged deep inside an abandoned well in Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park. It took days to recover Sherls from the 20-inch pipe that even park officials didn’t know existed, but only hours for Clark to rule his death a suicide. Summerrise says it doesn’t add up. 

Nina Summerrise
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

“I just want answers,” Summerrise told KNKX earlier this year. “If people didn’t do their jobs, I want them held accountable for that.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Summerrise says the county should have done more to hold Clark fully accountable, rather than being “gifted” a settlement and full benefits on his way out more than a year from now.

She says she still has questions about her son’s death. And, even after hiring a private investigator to follow what few leads remain, those questions may never be answered even after Clark is gone.

“I know my son did not commit suicide,” she said. “I’m sorry to hear Dr. Quinn is leaving. I think she’s a person who takes her job seriously and fully examines the way you’re supposed to. Hopefully the next person they get in the office has that same integrity.”

This story is developing. Check back for more details.