Curran: Coroner's office was in disarray
Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said he and his staff discovered numerous problems in the operation of the coroner's office he was appointed to run after the resignation of Dr. Richard Keller.
However, Curran said, changes in procedures to correct the shortcomings have been implemented and he sees more on the way.
"The people who are there are working very hard and they have been terrific in working with us," he said Thursday. "They knew that this was basically a ship out of control and that we were going to show them the way to do it right."
Keller pleaded guilty to unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and obstruction of justice Feb. 22 in connection with his work as the medical director of a Waukegan methadone clinic. The clinic was linked to an overdose death in a years-long investigation. He was placed on probation and agreed to resign as coroner and surrender his license as a medical doctor.
Curran leveled his harshest criticism of Keller, who was coroner from 2004 until his resignation, for a union contract he signed with employees that led to runaway overtime pay.
The seven deputy coroners on staff when the contract was signed were scheduled to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Curran said, and any time they were called out at night or on weekends or holidays was paid as overtime.
According to a report by sheriff's office business manager Kevin Lyons, this resulted in the office being a combined 189 percent over its budget for overtime in 2009 and 2010.
The office budgeted $22,000 for overtime pay in 2009 and paid out $51,169, Lyons' report states. It paid $65,837 in 2010 when $40,000 was budgeted.
"Part of the budgetary problems were due to the fact that Dr. Keller agreed to a union contract on Dec. 31, 2008 that is a little short of a dereliction of his duties as an independent executive," Curran said.
He added he could not find a similar schedule outlined "In law enforcement or any other coroner's office we are aware of."
As a remedy, Curran said, the unionized deputy coroners agreed to a reinterpretation of the contract that allowed them to be scheduled at night and on weekends and holidays at regular pay, and brought overtime pay down to budgeted levels.
Keller also eliminated the position of chief deputy coroner, the only job other than coroner not covered by the union contract, Curran said.
Keller could not be reached for comment, but his attorney Christopher Kennedy of Lake Forest said he had talked with his client about the report.
"In the first place, Dr. Keller points out that the contract was approved by the county administrator and county board as well as himself," Kennedy said. "He also said there appears to be an anti-union political agenda behind the sheriff's remarks."
Lake County Administrator Barry Burton said the county board approved the contract at Keller's recommendation. However, he said the way Keller "implemented, scheduled and managed" the workforce caused the overtime issue. He called Curran's criticism "fair".
Artis Yancey, a former Waukegan police chief who is scheduled to be named the new coroner April 12 pending his confirmation by the county board, said at the news conference he intends to fill the chief deputy coroner position.
Yancey said he also wants to press for other changes in the next contract, which he said is currently being negotiated. He declined to be specific.
"I want to take the time to digest Sheriff Curran's report and meet with people in the office," Yancey said. "I will make the assessments of what is needed once I get in there and will act accordingly."
Poor or nonexistent control procedures, which included improper collection, storage and disposal of drugs and other evidence in death investigations, have also been corrected, Curran said.
David Godlewski, head of the sheriff's operations division, implemented strict protocols for handling evidence and designated an evidence custodian to assure compliance with the regulations, Curran said.
Kennedy said Keller told him some of the evidence the sheriff cited in his report was in the coroner's office before Keller's election, and the county's risk assessment department was working on a disposal system for dangerous chemicals and drugs.
Deputy coroners have also been reoriented about their powers and duties, and have been told to abandon activities more traditionally associated with police officers, Curran said.
Under Keller, Curran said, deputy coroners were doing traffic stops for compliance checks on child safety seats, and had questioned witnesses and potential suspects in criminal cases.
Curran said he did not strip deputy coroners of their right to carry guns, although he urged them to exercise caution in doing so.
"Deputy coroners sometimes have to go into dangerous situations in connection with their duties and should be able to carry guns," he said. "They are not police officers, though, and should not be randomly putting people on the ground."
None of the problems his officers uncovered in the coroner's office rose to the level of criminal offenses, Curran said, and he does not believe any criminal cases or investigations were compromised by the procedural shortcomings he cited.