A report written by the county’s internal audit department makes 27 recommended changes to the medical examiner’s office, including a suggestion the office hold competitive bids or privatize.
Latona Thomas, who heads the county’s audit department, gave a presentation to the commissioners during a work session Tuesday afternoon, which Frist attended.
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 has eliminated its coroner in favor of the position, making the switch in 1973.
A coroner is an elected official who must live in the county and is not required to be a physician because they do not perform forensic pathological services. A medical examiner is an appointed position, does have to be a physician and does not have to live in the county.
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. 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.
The audit lists several other issues with the office, such as a lack of written procedures, no monitoring of internal camera systems and lack of a subspecialty accreditation 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 that a neighboring county, DeKalb, charges its medical examiner $1,485 per month for use of facilities. There was also no documentation to prove county employees were off the clock when working for Frist or that county cases were coming before his personal ones.
Frist assured things in his office are being done correctly.
“The county’s always come first,” Frist said in an interview. “I want to make that clear.”
The audit was trigged by a complaint from Tom Cheek, who was upset about the way the office handled the death of his son, who died in a 2012 fire.
Frist said the complaint was unwarranted.
“He’s totally wrong,” Frist said. “He’s acting out of anger and grief, trying to mourn his son, and he can’t accept it.”
While internal audit did not examine work done on Cheek’s case specifically, its findings about the medical examiner’s office would not have come to light without that complaint.
Commissioner Joann Birrell said she was part of a citizen’s group that recommended any county office not audited in the last five years should go through an internal audit. But both Birrell and Chairman Tim Lee said they saw no reason to remove Frist from office.
“There’s responsibility all around,” said Lee of the issues that need to be fixed. “This is a joint effort. We’re a team.”
Lee said it’s too early to determine whether or not competitive bids or privatization are needed, but that it may not make much difference because so few people are qualified to serve as a medical examiner.
He also sees no need to reduce the value of the contract.
“Our cost is in line with that of neighboring counties,’ Lee said.
Frist stressed he’s willing to work with the county on almost all of the issues identified in the audit. He said competitive bids would be a mistake and noted Cobb’s average cost per autopsy is lower than surrounding counties. However, if competitive bids are taken, he would bid for the contract.