Change after the chaos in Kane coroner's office

Updated 11/19/2012 9:42 AM
  • Chuck West

    Chuck West

Kane County paid $20,000 to settle a lawsuit former Coroner Chuck West's second-in-command filed alleging he retaliated and inflicted emotional distress on her after she alerted authorities to possible misconduct, according to information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The county spent another $18,614 on attorney fees defending West in the lawsuit brought by Deputy Coroner Loren Carrera, court records show.

West, 69, died in July after complications from a liver transplant. Because of his death, he never went on trial on felony misconduct charges alleging he allowed a TV/DVD/VCR combo to be stolen from the home of a dead Carpentersville man in 2007.

Documents from the Kane County sheriff's office's criminal investigation into West paint a picture of a divided, unproductive office bordering on chaos in summer 2010 as he sought to find out who contacted authorities.

According to the sheriff records, West held a meeting in August 2009 telling staff members he wanted the last three months of desk and cellphone records pulled to find out who was feeding the state's attorney's office information. He threatened to sue for slander, said he had the right to face his accuser and that the person should come forward, according to sheriff's documents.

Some employees told investigators West was "upset" and his tone made it clear it was "not a friendly meeting." Others defended West, saying he was a "great guy and an awesome boss."

One employee refused to talk to investigators unless she was subpoenaed. Another said West told employees not to blame each other and that all had to work together and do their jobs, according to sheriff's reports.

After West was indicted in summer 2010, he held another all-staff meeting on July 6. Brandishing his court papers, he called the situation a "hate crime" against his office and vowed to drag the case out for the two years remaining on his term.

The meeting sparked another round of interviews by investigators, in which employees said there was no leadership, no camaraderie and no consequences for employees who were late for training events, according to sheriff's reports.

Carrera sued in 2011, arguing that West had violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act by retaliating and threatening her. In her suit, Carrera also said West stripped away her responsibilities, urinated on her office chair, slept in various places in the office, and allowed employees to take their dogs to work.

The county denied all allegations made in the suit and said the settlement was not an admission of guilt or liability.

But coroner's office employees interviewed in 2010 backed up some of Carrera's allegations.

According to sheriff's documents, employees told investigators some workers were allowed to take excessive cigarette breaks of six to eight per day; many played games or looked at personal email on their computers instead of working; and West would come into work at 11 a.m. and immediately fall asleep, napping in various places in the office.

Employees reported that dogs allowed in the office had nipped at least five people, and the office carpet and chair smelled of "dog urine, feces and vomit."

West, who was first elected in 2000, was not seeking another term before his death. On Nov. 6, voters picked Republican Rob Russell for a 4-year term.

Russell, of South Elgin, has pledged to resign from his job as sergeant at the DuPage County sheriff's office to focus on the coroner's post. Part of his campaign was to restore integrity and trust to the office, and one of his goals is to have the office go through an accreditation process similar to police departments.

"My goal is like the Boy Scout thing: Leave something better than when you found it," said Russell, who did not comment specifically about the sheriff's reports. "It's important to me that we work to make the office better and get it to a point where this doesn't happen again."

Russell will be sworn in next month.

Interim Coroner Brad Sauer has made progress organizing the office but made it sound like the place remains a mess when he spoke at a recent Kane County Board Judiciary Committee meeting.

Sauer said he has cataloged all the homicide evidence.

"It was just kind of thrown in a freezer that didn't even have a latch on it," he said, adding there are now new, locked freezers.

Other equipment and supplies have been inventoried, and he has installed some computer software so the coroner's office can find next of kin and return cash and belongings from the deceased, he said.

Sauer said when he took over, there typically was $1,500 to $2,000 in the office safe at any time; that's now down to about $200.

"(The office) has a whole different feel to it," said board member Mark Davoust, chairman of the Judicial and Public Safety committee. "It is cleaner and more organized."

• Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this report.

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