Cheek accepts the way the death was ruled by the Cobb County Medical Examiner — cause unknown — but says he always had questions about some of the specifics.
“From the beginning, I had a feeling things weren’t quite right,” said Cheek, 54, a software salesman and lifelong Cobb resident. “I went back to the scene a few days after my son’s memorial service. I found remains there, parts of my son’s body.”
Two years later, his complaints led to a critical internal audit of the office — which has been led by Brian Frist for 15 years — and found 27 separate issues with the way it is run. Though county commissioners say Frist should keep his job and the findings were unrelated to the complaint, major questions about his nearly $500,000 contract and why the office had essentially no oversight from the county prior to the audit remain.
Questions come up
Cheek eventually spoke to the Cobb Board of Commissioners several times during public comment, sparking the audit.
But a long process led to that point.
He looked for the examiner’s office on the county website, but it was nowhere to be found. He searched for the office in the county’s organizational chart, it wasn’t there either.
“The complaint process was nonexistent at the time,” Cheek said.
Most of the issues Cheek discovered on his own were later found during the official audit. They are scheduled to be taken care of over the next several months.
Frist has said that Cheek is “totally wrong” about his complaint.
“The body was removed entirely, but when Mr. Cheek went back there, he found a portion of skin smaller than a dime in size,” Frist said. “A piece of charred skin, which he believes we should have found. He makes it sound as if we left significant body parts and couldn’t do a thorough investigation if we left this behind.”
Frist also reiterated there was no problem with the autopsy, a statement Cheek agrees with.
The two had a meeting Thursday morning to talk over the case.
Issues found in the audit
Commissioners say they see no reason to part ways with Frist after the audit, which included a suggestion the office hold competitive bids or privatize.
Frist has been the county medical examiner since 1999 and was an associate medical examiner for 10 years before that.
Medical examiners have a job roughly similar to that of a county coroner, but Cobb is one of only five counties in Georgia that have one, making the switch away from a coroner in 1973.
Frist’s contract is worth $475,500 a year, which he splits with three part-time employees. When asked, he said he did not know how much goes to him directly as salary. According to the audit, associate medical examiners are paid $16,500, and after expenses are taken out, $445,082 is left in “medical examiner revenue.”
Robert Quigley, Cobb County communications director, said the county does not have a detailed breakdown of how he spends those monies and Frist is paid a fee for his services as a contract provider.
The contract at one time included salary for other staff members, but those are now paid by the county.
“We were unable to determine the justification for the county assuming personnel previously paid out of the contract without a corresponding reduction to the ME contract,” reads the audit.
Other issues include a lack of written procedures, no monitoring of internal cameras and a lack of subspecialty for Frist by the American Board of Pathology.
Frist also performs autopsies independently, which he profits from. He is allowed free use of county facilities, and also uses county employees who are off the clock. But the audit found a neighboring county, DeKalb, charges its examiner $1,485 per month for use of facilities. Frist also could not provide proof county employees were off the clock when working for him or that county cases always came before his personal ones.
“The county’s always come first,” Frist said.
The internal audit didn’t examine work done on Cheek’s case specifically, but the findings wouldn’t have come to light without Frist’s complaint.
Lee says Frist should stay
Frist and Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee defended the size of the contract because Cobb pays less per autopsy than neighboring counties. But to Cheek, this fuels his concerns about the quality of work being done.
“You’re talking to a man whose son’s body parts were left in a field,” Cheek said. “Is that what you want to brag about? Almost half of the office’s budget is going to one person. I came up with $40 that’s being spent per investigation (outside Frist’s salary). That gets you a flashlight and a stick.”
Lee did take responsibility for not having procedures in place for Frist’s office. But he defended the work of the office.
“It’s all clear and understood — it’s just not codified,” he said. “But I think it’s clear as to what’s being done. I have absolute confidence the work product coming out of the medical examiner’s office.”
As to whether audits of the office are needed at regular intervals, Lee said it was premature to say.
“It’s too premature to say that right now,” Lee said. “I think accreditation answers a lot of the issues that were brought up.”