Walla Walla County coroner denies allegations



Walla Walla County Coroner Frank Brown responds to a question from a member of the press during a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the Fort Walla Walla picnic pavillion. Brown is facing a long list of complaints about his professional practices from three of Walla Walla County's top emergency services officers.

Watch video of press conference below.

WALLA WALLA - At a press conference Tuesday, Walla Walla County Coroner Frank Brown denied charges he has been responsible for problems local law enforcement and emergency officials say they are having with his office.

Meeting with reporters at Fort Walla Walla Park, Brown said he is simply trying to do the job the law requires. He also said while he has no trouble working with law enforcement or other staff in the field "I do have problems when the head(s) of departments, elected officials, take on a bullying aspect."

The press conference was in response to criticisms of Brown by Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys, Walla Walla Police Chief Chuck Fulton and Walla Walla Fire Chief Terry Thomas. The three officials aired their concerns at the county commissioners' June 2 meeting.

Humphreys, Fulton and Thomas cited a litany of problems they say have developed since Brown became the county coroner. Among the issues have been delay in getting coroner's reports, being notified of autopsies so law enforcement officers could attend, communication with the coroner's office and an overall breakdown of trust.

In addition to those comments, Brown also defended himself Tuesday against a range of complaints filed with county commissioners by citizens and other officials during the years since he took office as well as making accusations against Humphreys, two local assisted care facilities and emergency workers and doctors involved in a fatal accident case.

Brown also singled out Providence St. Mary Medical Center, saying an investigation he had conducted into a patient's death there in March found a patient who had been diagnosed as dying from a cerebral bleed in fact died from a "toxicity of morphine, a lethal toxicity of morphine that was given at the hospital.

"This case has been determined to be a homicide and that's the way I placed it on the death certificate and that's the way it was filed," Brown said.

In response, Kathleen Obenland, the hospital's public information officer, said in a statement today "Providence St. Mary Medical Center has been notified that the Walla Walla coroner, facing widespread adverse publicity, has responded by making certain unfounded allegations against the hospital - allegations that the coroner should know are false.

"The medical center is assessing its legal options and determining how it might work with the coroner's office in the interim in light of these accusations. We will have no further comment until the assessment is complete," she said.

At the conference, Brown asserted state law requires him to investigate every death in the county and determine its cause. He complained that county commissioners "has been, for years, held back … The budget, the salary is all below a normal coroner's office."

Brown said Franklin County, which has a population similar to Walla Walla County, provides a budget twice as large as his and provides its coroner a salary "three times as much as I (make). Is that fair, when he only sees 200 deaths a year and I see over 600?"

A reporter then asked Brown how many deaths he is required to go out on.

"I look at all deaths. And I look at all deaths simply because every death has to have somebody to review it," Brown replied.

"Are you required to do that?" the reporter asked.

"Am I required? No," Brown said.

In response to a question, Brown went on to say that he could not "offhand" say how many of the 632 deaths reported in Walla Walla County in 2008 he was legally required to look at.

"I don't have (those numbers) with me, no. That is not what I came here for," he said, adding that the reporter who asked the question could always file a request for public records to get that information.

Brown said allegations that he was looking into deaths that he doesn't need to look into are unfounded.

"This criteria is done by myself and that's the way the laws are set up for it. If I had to rely on everybody to tell me what cases I need to look into, I'm not doing a just service for the people I'm serving. My job is to investigate, to make sure there was no wrongdoings, that there was no foul play and that their death was of natural causes.

If a death is not from natural causes, he said, "then I was to take these allegations that I have formed from my case to law enforcement, to the prosecutor services, to the attorneys that represent the families and give them this information so that they can use that to aid in their investigations and their cases if needed."

During the approximately 45-minute new conference, Brown said he tries to get reports out as quickly as possible, but delays happen because he has to wait for "autopsy reports, reports from toxicologies, reports from tissue banks and medical records.

"These all take time, it's something you just don't produce overnight. My job is to represent that person that I've taken upon. I am their advocate and when I put out a report it's going to be (correct) and its going to be factual. And I'm not going to put out a report until it's completed."

Brown also denied other charges made by officials regarding how his office handles toxicology test results, autopsies and other matters.

"The purpose of the coroner's office is to investigate death and to make a determination of the cause of death and the manner of death. Those are the duties that have been placed upon my office by the state and by the people of Washington. And I take my job seriously. And I will follow those rules," he said.

Brown said he was not sure why Humphreys, Fulton and Thomas came out with their complaints when they did.

"I'm not sure why," he said. "I question their timing. It seems awful curious this is done a few days prior to the procedure of placing your candidacy by the state."

The coroner's office is up for election this year and Brown said at one point he was not sure at this time if he intended to run again, although at the close of the news conference he said he would run for re-election.

Brown said that in criminal cases, he felt that "my cooperation with the law enforcement, with the men that are out there, is good." But he reiterated that he felt he is being bullied by department heads.

"In adult life, it's called workplace harassment. And I do not stand up for that. I will refute these allegations," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.


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