Internal audit critical of medical examiner; Board says Frist should keep job
by Haisten Willis
April 23, 2014 04:00 AM | 5549 views | 4 4 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners on Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the M.E.’s office. <br> Staff/Jeff Stanton
Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners on Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the M.E.’s office.
Staff/Jeff Stanton
04-22-14 -- Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the ME's office. Staff/Jeff Stanton
04-22-14 -- Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the ME's office. Staff/Jeff Stanton
MARIETTA — Cobb County commissioners say they see no reason to part ways with county medical examiner Brian Frist, despite an internal audit that found several issues with his office.

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.

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Charlotte Clark
May 18, 2014
I have followed the coverage of the internal audit of the Cobb County Medical Examiner's office. I hope that the MDJ will cover the discussions and voting as the Commissioners decide the fate of this crucial office. As a nurse, I am flabbergasted that Chairman Lee recently described the performance of the office as "stellar" despite the auditor finding serious issues, and mostly because the fact that the ME has a history of falsifying autopsy reports was brought to light. Commissioner Birrell has echoed these sentiments without even having time to truly consider the suggestions of the auditor.

These sanctions are dated, yes, but they show the character of the medical professional responsible. Do character, honesty and integrity mean nothing anymore? A $485,000 salary for someone that has broken the law (not prosecuted) by purposefully filing false autopsy records?

Maybe no one is aware of the history here. Dr. Frist used to work part time for DeKalb County, until he was caught and punished for his actions. He couldn't work in DeKalb anymore, so he came to the only county that has no oversight, doesn't check backgrounds, and doesn't do interviews for the ME position - Cobb County. He does not qualify for an assistant ME position with the GBI that pays $140,000. He would be found unqualified for any ME position in Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama or North Carolina. Georgia has the most complex ME/Coroner system in North America, but even so - Cobb County is the only place in Georgia that does not have a board certified forensic specialist.

Chairman Lee's popularity due to the Braves move to Cobb County seems to give him the power to simply declare that everything is alright, and most of the other commissioners just agree with him. Is politics everything in this county? Does anyone do the right thing, just because it is the right thing to do? Is the Chairman going to wave his foam tomahawk the next time a murderer roams free, or an innocent person is convicted?

Chairman Lee said no one complained. He is mistaken. If there were no complaints, Dr. Frist would not have the record that he does at the Georgia Composite Medical Board. I have personally complained to Chairman Lee, and have received no response. What Chairman Lee means is that no one at the Chamber of Commerce has complained.

We are not lifelong residents. We chose to retire to Cobb County to be close to family, and we are very happy with our decision. But, when we look at issues about Public Safety (and this is one) the Cobb BOC seems to be weak. They seem to only look at the current needs of the Chamber of Commerce, and not the long term needs of the private citizens. The average private citizen could not afford a private autopsy by a real ME, so this also seems elitist. By choosing an unqualified person, they know that wealthy citizens (Chamber of Commerce types) could easily afford a better solution, but the average citizen has no such option.

I know that the love story between Cobb, Lee and the Braves is the hot topic of the day, and probably sells newspapers. I know that Commissioners are forced to fall in line or risk losing power, influence or behind the scene endorsements. I don’t think that the newspaper needs to be complicit. Please give us the story. Please find out how Commissioners stand on the issues so that citizens can react. I know this isn’t a "fluff" feel-good story. But, it does affect the safety of the citizens of this county. Please cover this story.

April 24, 2014
This was just a matter of time. His abilities were questioned in that Daker murder trial last year. He was answering questions about his medical license being suspended.
Just Wait
April 23, 2014
Anybody in an administrative/managerial position that does not know how much salary he makes cannot be trusted to perform his responsibilities. That statement causes him to loose all credibility.
Tom Cheek
April 23, 2014
Actually, the amount that Dr. Frist paid his associate MEs is readily available in the audit. It was $13,000. So, with his recent automatic increase, he still makes more than the 475,000 mentioned in the article. Chaiman Lee is incorrect. Dr. Frist makes more than any two other medical examiners in the state of Georgia combined.

Of course I am mourning the loss of my son. How could I not be? But I am not "totally wrong". I think the findings of the auditor validate my opinion that Dr. Frist has done a poor job of training and supervising his staff and administering the duties of this position.
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