Complaints paint picture of careless, thoughtless Walla Walla County coroner

Concerns include how bodies are transported, records are kept and how the coroner interacts with survivors.

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Below you'll find a transcript of the comments made about Walla Walla County Coroner Frank Brown. To the right you will find a link to the audio of the comments.

WALLA WALLA -- "As you may or may not be aware, there have been ongoing concerns on the part of Providence St. Mary Medical Center regarding the County Coroner, Frank Brown," begins a letter from Steve Burdick, chief executive officer for St. Mary. "In one situation, after being notified by the hospital of an infant death, Frank came to the facility, placed the body in the front seat of his vehicle and then drove to another facility for testing of the remains.

"According to the infant's family members, Frank later went to their home and began questioning the father in what (the father) considered to be an accusatory manner. The medical professionals who treated the child indicated that the cause of death was not related to wrongdoing on anyone's part."

The litany of complaints, like that of Burdick's, filed with the Walla Walla County commissioners' office begins just months after Brown was elected to office in November 2004.

According to information obtained by a request for public records by the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, the list of problems associated with Brown's job performance ranges from altering public records and threatening to arrest law enforcement officers to signing death certificates later than the law allows and failing to submit his payroll.

In his letter, dated May 17 of this year, Burdick goes on to tell county officials that Brown told him that, as the coroner, he is entitled to view the records of any patient in the hospital, including those who are alive.

Larry and Carolyn Bermes added their concerns about Brown in 2008, not long after their son Benjamin died that May.

How the 29-year-old died, the Montana family will probably never know, Larry Bermes said from his accounting office in Billings on Monday. Ben used illegal drugs, but he had also been recently hospitalized for an uncontrolled internal infection.

Because of Brown's alleged blunders, the Bermeses don't know if Ben's death came at the hands of a drug dealer or perhaps a medical mistake, his father said. As he pushed for answers and toxicology reports, Brown pushed back. "He was really awful to me. He would tell me to back off or the record might reflect my son committed suicide."

Normally, a report from Washington state's toxicology lab would have determined what killed Ben Bermes. His parents would come to discover, however, that their son's blood was either never drawn or mislabeled and mixed up with another person's.

Brown told Bermes and state toxicologists that labels had come off blood samples in refrigerated storage at his office, resulting in four samples arriving at the Seattle lab with no identification, Larry Bermes recalled.

His account is backed by correspondence from the lab commander, Fiona Couper, to Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys. "... and he willingly admits he has no idea which blood belongs to which decedent. His solution to this was to send all the cases in and wait for the toxicology results and then he would match up 'whose blood is whose' based on the results."

When the Bermeses later forced a DNA test, they found the blood sample Brown represented as Ben's was not their son's.

Brown never knew during that time the Bermeses had Ben's DNA from a previous medical test, Larry Bermes said.

In a letter to Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys, Couper added that Brown did not seem concerned by the mix-up. An examination by the Union-Bulletin of the Oct. 23, 2008, correspondence in this matter shows a winking smiley face drawn on a request from Brown to send a corrected report on a document that began as a John Doe but had been amended to reflect Ben's results.

In fact, the John Doe blood carried a date of death of June 21 and a blood collection date of Aug. 28, 2008, Larry Bermes discovered, and wrote in a letter to Brown dated Jan. 19, 2009. "You also indicated in a fax that the funeral home drew the blood. I called Shelly at the funeral home and confirmed they did not draw Ben's blood."

The state lab was equally dismayed by the incident. "Further, he is trying to cover his tracks and I refuse to let the lab take any blame," Couper wrote to Humphreys. "And finally, I do not believe this is the first time there has been a mix up of cases, as we have had some questions regarding his blood submissions in the past."

Couper said that in February 2009 Brown drove, unannounced, to Seattle to talk to Couper about the blood sample results and the request by Larry Bermes for DNA test results. In her toxicology case log, Couper noted "Mr. Brown kept questioning me on this 'release of information' as he believed any/all of this information was protected under (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)."

The Bermeses are not the only family affected by Brown's methods, officials said. On Dec. 14, 2008, Dr. Bruce Barga of Providence St. Mary Physician Group sent a letter to the coroner, saying he had been told by hospice and home health nurses that Brown -- unlike any other coroner in the past 20 years -- had confiscated medications, including opioids, from deceased patients.

The concern is with how those are being disposed of, Barga wrote.

"Because this practice exposes your office to potential criticism of unprofessional behavior, I highly recommend that you direct bereaved families to dispose of remaining medication, rather than taking on this responsibility yourself."

Washington law requires duplicate lists of money, jewelry, papers and personal property be logged and kept at the morgue and filed with the county auditor. Karen Martin, auditor for Walla Walla County, said Monday she has never received such lists from Brown or any other county coroners.

In one case, according to the county commissioners' summation of problems, Brown "removed prescriptions clearly marked for the decedent's wife, who was in need of them and had no funds to replace them, and could not get the coroner to return her calls or return her medications."

Others have experienced a consistent lack of cooperation from the coroner's office.

In April, Virginia Mahan of Herring Groseclose Funeral Home submitted a letter to county commissioners indicating she and her staff have experienced numerous instances in which death certificates have not been signed in the 72-hour hour period as required by law. In conversations with Brown, "it has been stated that the (state law) ... in reference to the filing of Death Certificates is not an observed code that the Coroner's Office must comply with."

Those delays led to the funeral home receiving a letter of reprimand from the state department of Vital Statistics in 2008, "the first one of its kind regarding this issue" for Herring Groseclose, Mahan wrote. "The Herring Funeral Home, a family institution since 1875, has always taken great pride in the observation and compliance of codes set forth by the state and federal agencies."

Because grieving families cannot move forward without a death certificate, not even to bury their loved one, the document is extremely important, Mahan explained Saturday. "And our underlying purpose is to prevent any additional trauma to the family."

Families, professionals and law enforcement officials have told county officials of great frustrations in attempting to reach Brown. He cannot be found in person, does not return voice mails, answer his cell phone or reply to letters or e-mails, according to a summation of complaints obtained from county commissioners. People have given accounts of promised test results not delivered, With no help from the coroner's office, "those parties contact the commissioner's office, only to learn that, as a separate elected official, the county commissioners only have budgetary authority over that office."

It's a lesson he continues to learn, Larry Bermes said.

"I would have understood if he said he screwed up, but he sat there and lied and lied to me. And that just made me madder. The reality is, he never did his job and he tried to cover it up."

The Bermeses had Ben's body cremated on May 15, 2008, after Brown reassured them he had the blood samples needed for testing, Larry said.

"I'm concerned he's done this to other people ... this is hard for me. We didn't want to have to deal with this through time and we find we continually have to deal with it."

Walla Walla County Prosecutor Jim Nagle told Bermes in a letter March 10, 2010, that his office represents the county coroner and therefore, investigating Ben's death and Brown's job performance as it related to that would be a conflict of interest.

"I have asked other county prosecutors and the criminal division of the Attorney General's Office to review reports I have received in order to consider filing criminal charges they deem appropriate. They have indicated to me that they would decline filing criminal charges," he wrote.

No matter, Larry Bermes said. He plans to go forward in getting closure, including approaching Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna's office himself.

"I strongly feel that Frank Brown should not be allowed to falsify public records as an elected public official and needs to take responsibility for his actions," Larry Bermes said this morning.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

Transcript of County Commission Meeting 06 0

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