New complaint doubles down on Pierce County medical examiner

Dr. Thomas Clark, Pierce County chief medical examiner, is shown March 4, 2016 in his office with a teaching microscope.
Dr. Thomas Clark, Pierce County chief medical examiner, is shown March 4, 2016 in his office with a teaching microscope. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Pierce County Medical Examiner Thomas Clark, already under fire from a local whistleblower complaint, now faces a state-level complaint that aims at his medical license.

The complaint filed Jan. 29 by Associate Medical Examiner Megan Quinn sets the stage for an unusual inquiry by the state Department of Health. None of Clark’s patients can speak for themselves: They’re all dead, and they’re supposed to be.

Thus, Quinn’s complaint to the Washington Medical Commission names “Decedents and their families in Pierce County” as the parties affected by Clark’s alleged unprofessional conduct.

The circumstances include many of the same details as the earlier whistleblower complaint, which is no coincidence — Quinn filed that one, too.

Like the prior local complaint, the most serious allegations involve child deaths. Quinn, who started working at the medical examiner’s office in August 2018, contends Clark found that three deaths were either accidental or undetermined when other circumstances indicated that abuse might have played a role. Two of the deaths occurred before Quinn began working at the office. The third dates to last month.

Clark referred questions to Pierce County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich, who has previously indicated the county will conduct an internal investigation into the whistleblower complaint. The state complaint is being assessed by the Department of Health, which will determine whether an inquiry is necessary.

Quinn, interviewed last week by The News Tribune, said she became concerned about Clark’s methods over the past few months, especially one infant death in January.

“This is not about a power struggle or my approval or disapproval of the way he administers the office,” she said. “Honestly, the deciding factor for me was my increasing alarm around his management of specific cases that were coming to my attention, and my observation of his behavior and management and choices. It reached a point where it crossed a line.”

Quinn’s state complaint is something of a grab bag. It suggest Clarks skirts national standards for forensic autopsies. It contends that Clark has altered cause-of-death information without consulting subordinates beforehand. It also repeats multiple allegations about Clark’s management style.

Many are drawn from a prior whistleblower complaint filed in 2016 by a lower-level staffer. The resulting investigation noted that some employees found Clark to be arrogant and vindictive at times. It also found that his management did not compromise death investigations. At the time, local police agencies in Tacoma, Pierce County and Lakewood said they were not concerned about the quality of investigation from Clark’s office.

Statements from staffers interviewed in the 2016 investigation contend Clark made inappropriate remarks about lesbian women, suggested that the opioid crisis doesn’t exist and that he has conducted personal surveillance on subordinates who defy him.

“He enjoys fighting with people, exerting his will over people. Gets a kick out of that. He says that he does it,” said one former staffer quoted in the 2016 investigation. “He’s also said he fires off letters of complaint to Starbucks.”

Quinn’s state complaint also refers to Clark’s efforts to obtain video of a pedestrian struck by a freight train. The state Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against Clark and Pierce County in that action, finding that the medical examiner tried to invoke a rare coroner’s inquest into the matter without taking the necessary steps to begin the process.

The state Medical Commission, also known as the Medical Quality Assurance Commission receives approximately 1,800 complaints per year from multiple sources, according to its website. Clark has been licensed in Washington since 2010, according to the state database. As of this week, he has no disciplinary actions on his record.

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.