That mess in the cornoner's office

Dateline: Thu 27 Sep 2007

The recent lawsuit filed by two forensic pathologists against Marion County Coroner Kenneth Ackles, alleging racial discrimination, is simply the pot that has boiled over -- the problems that are now public record have been brewing since 2004. What has not been told, however, is how manipulation by two key Democrats is at the heart of the turmoil within this critical county office.

Dr. Ackles is the coroner/chiopractor who is the target of the lawsuit, filed by physicans Drs. Stephen Radentz and Michelle Catellier. Also named are Ackles' chief deputy Alfarena Ballew and the city.

The two doctors bringing the suit are white; Ackles and Ballew are black. The physicians claim they were fired in 2006, after signing a five-year contract; they allege that Ackles is determined to staff his office with African-Americans. The city's response, as reported first by Rebecca Berfanger in the Sept. 19 "Indiana Lawyer," is that the docs are irked because they lost out on a $1 million deal. (Note: Berfanger reports that Abdul Hakim-Shabazz also had the story on his morning radio show 1430AM the day her online story ran).

From Berfanger's story: "This case has nothing to do with racial discrimination," said (James) Osborn, (speaking for the Office of Corporation Counsel for Indianapolis) after reviewing the filing.

"It has everything to do with Dr. Radentz losing a $1 million contract. The contract clearly stipulates we have the right to terminate the contract without cause, and we did. Dr. Ackles moved on and found a better pathologist. There is no merit to this claim."

That "better pathologist" Ackles found would be Dr. Joye Carter. She is black, and she had been fired in Houston several years earlier; she also was turned down for a job with the Indiana University Forensic Patholgy Division because of her questionable "past performance as a medical examiner," according to the lawsuit. Her problems were well-documented at the time of hiring in the Star and other news media.

So how did we get to the point that the city is facing another embarrassing discrimination-oriented lawsuit -- this one with the twist of reverse discrimination charges?

Important question, since in the recent past, the coroner's office was staffed by by skilled professionals, including one physician with a forensic pathology specialty -- not a requirement, but certainly a plus for the job. That was Dr. John McGoff; Frances Kelly was a chief deputy coroner under McGoff. A bit of Internet research shows a credible body of work in their names and dedication to their careers. Likewise, the work of forensic pathologist Dr. John Pless of the IU Med Center was highly regarded; Pless often testified in child-abuse cases and worked closely with the coroner's office.

But politics reared its ugly head in 2004, when then Marion County Dem chairman Ed Treacy and U.S. Rep. Julia Carson decided it was time that the coroner's office should be occupied by a black -- this, despite the fact that loyal Democrat John Linehan, a longtime deputy coroner who had served under both GOP and Dem administrations, initially had the party's backing.

No matter. Treacy, a lobbyist for the state chiopractors' association, apparently hand-picked Ackles, a chiopractor, for the job. At the slating convention, Ackles reportedly stated no qualifications for becoming coroner and acknowledged that, if elected, he would hire more blacks. Ackles was slated -- with a narrow victory -- over Linehan.

Sad to say, but the lawsuit details all sorts of shenanigans that have taken place in this once-proud city/county institution: accusations, later shown to be false, that Linehan was guilty of ghost employment; a smear campaign against Linehan carried out by a TV reporter and orchestrated by his enemies in the coroner's office; accounts of Ms. Ballew not attending to coroner's business promptly; even charges of illegally harvesting of a dead person's corneas and other organs, and of a deceased baby whose skull was fractured while in the care of an incompetent deputy coroner.

Linehan, it should be noted, is not a party to the lawsuit, altho Ackles fired him in 2006 based on the trumped-up ghost employee charges (He worked part-time as an EMT at Methodist Hospital, an arrangement that had been approved by his former boss, Dr. John McGoff.) Linehan has filed a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; a decision on his complaint is pending from an administrative judge.

Maybe none of this will come as a shock. After all, the Star reported some time ago on employees in the coroner's office who had stolen money from the bodies of the dead! It goes on and on, and more will come out as the lawsuit progresses.

But to think: it all started with political string-pulling and rank favortism on the part of Treacy and Rep. Carson. That is no way to run a coroner's office, or any political office.

In a final ironic twist, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs are Gary Welsh, a Republican and a blogger who has written in the past about the problems with the coroner's office, and Jeff McQuary, a Democrat who was a precinct committeeman at the Democrat slating convention where Ackles was chosen.

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