Report: Pierce County medical examiner seen as ‘arrogantly vindictive’ but not in violation of most policies

Some of his employees think Pierce County Medical Examiner Thomas Clark prioritizes organ donations over death investigations and is arrogant and vindictive, according to an outside investigation of a whistleblower complaint against him.

Some staff members have gone so far as to remove the organ donor status from their driver’s license because of that.

Investigators also spoke to employees about another allegation by whistleblower Melissa Baker — that Clark’s office was a hostile workplace.

“While Dr. Clark was surprised at the witnesses’ observations and strongly denied them, the overwhelming number of witnesses who describe similar experiences and observations establish that Dr. Clark’s actions in the workplace cause many staff to feel uncomfortable and, in some cases, afraid,” the report said.

In the end, however, the review found that Clark violated county policy only once — when alcohol was served at the office at an event, breaking a rule against having liquor in county workplaces.

Clark, appointed chief medical examiner in 2010, said in a statement Wednesday: “I place a high value on my interactions with the team from the Medical Examiner’s office. … Our donation partnership has had a huge positive impact on donor families in Pierce County, as well as tissue and cornea recipients.”

Baker, an employee of the medical examiner’s office, filed the whistleblower complaint Aug. 25. She alleged that, among other things, Clark prioritized his office’s resources for the benefit of organ-donation organizations.

Pierce County hired the consulting firm Seabold Group to investigate the complaints. The News Tribune obtained a copy of its report Tuesday from Joan Mell, Baker’s attorney.

Baker filed a claim against the county this week seeking $5 million in damages, alleging Clark has retaliated against her for speaking out.

In the consulting firm’s report, certified fraud examiner Martha Norberg writes that the whistleblower and co-workers, who aren’t named in the report, think the push for organ donation could interfere with the office’s work to determine the cause and manner of deaths and to preserve evidence.

“A few ME investigators expressed uneasiness at the lengths to which the ME’s office was going to facilitate the process, making it seem to one like a ‘chop shop,’ ” the report said.

The investigation found no evidence that changes Clark made to benefit organ donations have compromised the office’s ability to do its job.

It did note, however, that: “The procurement process appears to be one of the highest priorities for Dr. Clark, a process which he substantially controls, and by many accounts, without collaboration or feedback from his staff, his peers, or other stakeholders, such as law enforcement.”

The examiner found the situation has resulted in a close relationship between Clark’s office and organ-donation groups such as SightLife, which started renting space in the medical examiner’s building in 2014 and was allowed to use a room in the autopsy suite to harvest organs.

“There’s a reason it’s unprecedented,” Baker, in an interview Wednesday with The News Tribune, said about Clark’s focus on organ donation, and the level of access SightLife has to bodies.

“It’s unethical,” she said. “... I wouldn’t want my loved one to go through that office right now.”

Baker said she and other employees at the office no longer are organ donors, because of their uneasiness with the process. They’re not against donation, she said, but don’t like how Clark is prioritizing it.

Baker, some of her colleagues and some detectives said they feared SightLife’s access to the offices might interfere with investigations.

According to the outside report, Baker said that in one case Clark ordered a tarp that had been wrapped around a buried body and that was full of maggots to be shaken out in the parking lot of his office building.

“She said the standard protocol would be to lay out paper and sift through the tarp for evidence,” the report said. “She said it would never just be dumped in the parking lot.”

Another employee gave the same account, and said the room where that sort of check would have usually been done was where Clark now lets SightLife harvest organs.

“She said they don’t have a place anymore to handle something like that,” the report stated.

Staff members used to put bags over the hands of almost all homicide victims to preserve evidence, and organs usually could not be harvested in such cases. Clark decided in early 2015 that this practice was unnecessary, and that the bags should be used only in close-contact assaults, or other cases where investigators think it needs to be done.

“At least one detective became upset about the change in practice, because detectives were told by the complainant or another (staff member) that the change was to facilitate the donor program,” the report said.

In one case, the investigation found, a detective asked for fingernail scrapings from a stabbing victim, and was told the bags had already been taken off and the hands washed.

“An ME technician told this investigator that law enforcement officers from several different agencies have complained to her that Dr. Clark tells them donations come first, with respect to why he no longer routinely bags hands,” the report said.

Clark gave SightLife access to databases the investigators use, which means the company quickly knows about the death of someone who might be a candidate for donation.

There’s a small window before the organs no longer are usable for donation. The report said that how and when families are approached about that option was a concern for some medical examiner employees, police, a firefighter and two chaplains.

They said they thought SightLife contacted families prematurely (at times when the body was still at the scene of the death), and sometimes represented themselves as being from the medical examiner’s office.

Witnesses also said Clark sometimes told medical examiner staff membes to contact next of kin of military members quickly by phone, even when the military planned to send its own personnel to notify the family in person.

When witnesses confronted Clark with their concerns “they were met with derision and rudeness, and in the case of one chaplain, character attacks and false accusations,” according to the report.

As for the allegation that Clark’s office was a hostile workplace, the report includes an anecdote about a man who went to the office to ask for an autopsy for his dead loved one. The man asked to use the bathroom, but Clark said no, and the man ended up soiling a chair, investigators said.

“During a subsequent morning staff meeting, Dr. Clark laughed and said that family didn’t get an autopsy because of what the elderly man did,” according to the report.

Clark also denied bathroom access to a law enforcement official standing guard over the body of a fallen officer, employees said.

“The evidence overwhelmingly supports the allegation that Dr. Clark’s actions in the workplace are perceived as arrogantly vindictive, and in some cases deliberately cruel,” the report said.

Workers told investigators Clark calls shaved bodies: “swimmers,” and upon seeing overweight bodies has made comments such as “no wonder they died,” and “they shouldn’t have gone so often to McDonald’s.”

“Gallows humor” is part of the job, they said, but taking it to that extent offended them, as did some comments they said Clark made about lesbians.

County Executive Pat McCarthy, who appointed Clark, said in a statement: “Dr. Clark is rightfully recognized as a trailblazer in organ donation among his peers. .… At the same time, I certainly expect all county leaders to treat their colleagues with respect and professionalism, and I know that Dr. Clark is committed to improving communication with the medical examiner team.”

Asked if she’d contacted local law enforcement about the concerns mentioned in the report, McCarthy said: “We didn’t see any reason to do that, but I have an open door.”

She said she did not think any changes in the medical examiner’s policies and procedures were necessary, except for Clark to work on communication.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell