‘Things weren’t quite right’: Man believes investigation of son’s death was mishandled
by Haisten Willis
April 25, 2014 04:00 AM | 4205 views | 6 6 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tom Cheek stands across the street from the Cobb County Government Office at 100 Cherokee St. in downtown Marietta. Cheek’s son died in a mysterious fire in 2012 and he believes the Cobb Medical Examiner’s Office mishandled the investigation.<br>Staff/Jeff Stanton
Tom Cheek stands across the street from the Cobb County Government Office at 100 Cherokee St. in downtown Marietta. Cheek’s son died in a mysterious fire in 2012 and he believes the Cobb Medical Examiner’s Office mishandled the investigation.
Staff/Jeff Stanton
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MARIETTA — Tom Cheek may never know what happened to his son in a 2012 fire. The boy, then 17, died in a field off of Sandtown Road in southwest Marietta, an area now being converted into a subdivision.

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.”

Comments
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Charlotte Clark
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May 17, 2014
My husband and 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.
LoveCobb
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April 25, 2014
Okay. Find the site for the Georgia composite medical board. You can request a copy of the sanctions for Dr. Frist. It is called a "board order". It doesn't like he takes the accuracy of autopsies very seriously. This thing is like a public reprimand with probation time served and everything.

Thank you Google.
Mike In Smyrna
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April 25, 2014
What is the length of the contract?

Does Mr. Frist and his associates eligible for benefits that are offered to the county employees – i.e. insurance, 401K?

Please name the other 5 counties in Georgia with a medical examiner. How are they compensated?

Does the medical examiner only work with the Cobb County Police? Or, does he assistant other agencies in the county? If he does assist other agencies, is there a charge.

LoveCobb
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April 25, 2014
Mike

The contract does not have an end date. It automatically renews every year with a built-in increase.

Frist 'a associate medical examiners are part timers that work for either the GBI, or Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office. They average working about 10 days a year. They have benefits through their full-time jobs.

All others are county employees and have the benefits of full-time positions there.

Frist would likely interact with the police, district attorney, and possibly other departments if there were special circumstances. Those interactions would be considered part of his job description.
Chop won't fix this
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April 25, 2014
27 Issues on the audit??? Chairman Lee seems a little OVERconfident.
C. Wayne
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April 25, 2014
Thank you, Mr. Cheek. Why in the world does the word "transparency" frighten public officials so much. Do they simply not get it yet!? The reaction of Lee and others is a knee jerk - "move along, nothing to see here". Nobody, not even Mr. Cheek, said that anything is wrong, only that things need to be looked at more carefully. The taxpayers would certainly appreciate a more prudent approach to spending our money. I only wish the the Tim Lee's of the world felt the same way.
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