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Sex harassment claims, accreditation warnings. Coroner staff still got raises and bonuses

Updated October 28, 2021 - 10:06 am

The Clark County coroner’s office received nationwide accolades for its compassionate handling of the country’s deadliest mass shooting.

But behind the walls of its bunker-like office west of downtown, workers accused colleagues of sexual harassment and retaliation, delays in autopsies threatened the agency’s accreditation, the coroner was often absent and county oversight was largely missing, a Review-Journal investigation found.

Top county managers, who are responsible for essential offices like the coroner, say they only recently learned of some problems, which occurred during a span of five years.

Now, three county commissioners said there should be further inquiry into former Coroner John Fudenberg’s leadership and what county managers did to address the problems.

“The allegations are alarming,” said Commissioner Ross Miller,who assumed the office in January. “If any of that’s true, it absolutely merits a further investigation.” His comments were echoed by Vice Chairman Jim Gibson and Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who was an attorney specializing in employee-employer relations.

County Manager Yolanda King praised then-Coroner John Fudenberg’s response to the Oct. 1 shootings but said there were problems at the agency he ran.

We “became increasingly aware of issues within that office that needed to be addressed, including some serious personnel matters that were investigated by the County,” she said in an emailed statement. The coroner’s office “is in a very different place today than it was a few years ago.”

Despite the problems, county officials gave Fudenberg his largest percentage raise in 2018 plus bonuses totaling more than $11,500 that were paid in 2017 and 2018, records show.

Fudenberg responded through a text message, saying he did not want to be contacted unless the Review-Journal sent him written questions. The newspaper sent him concerns uncovered by the investigation, but he did not respond to the email or subsequent calls.

Management concerns

The Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner is integral to solving homicides, prosecuting murders and helping families cope with the violent deaths of loved ones.

[ Coroner vs. medical examiner: What system is best for Clark County? ]

After Fudenberg took over as coroner in 2015, more than a dozen employees — or about a quarter of the full-time staff — left in the next two years, records show. Most of the former employees did not respond to calls to determine why they left. But several who did tell a story of an often-absent coroner, an unprofessional work atmosphere and nonexistent oversight from top county staff.

Forensic supervisor Bill Gazza spent 23 years at the coroner’s office, retiring right after the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre because he was concerned about Fudenberg’s management.

“It’s a unique job, and it takes a unique individual to lead that group,” Gazza said. “John was just not a manager. That’s an acquired skill.”

Gazza said Fudenberg often put off key decisions. “If something needed to be done, John would wait until the last minute to task it,” Gazza said, adding that he liked working with the rest of the staff, whom he respected.

Fudenberg was out of the office nearly a fifth of his time, on average, between 2017 and his retirement last year, according to a Review-Journal analysis of Fudenberg’s calendars, vacation and key card logs and work travel documents. He was on vacation, giving speeches, working on International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners business, at conferences, or dealing with personal matters. He also spent months every other year in Carson City lobbying the Legislature for the county.

[ Fudenberg touted two degrees from a discredited diploma mill ]

Paul Parker, who was assistant coroner under Fudenberg for the first year and a half, defended Fudenberg’s leadership, saying most of the people who left reached retirement or were terminated.

“I thought quite frankly that with the exception of a few of (former Coroner Michael) Murphy’s allies, morale was pretty good, especially for what we did every day,” said Parker, who said he left in 2017 to move back to San Diego, where his family was living. “People were given the opportunity to talk and we listened to them.”

Accreditation problems

With fewer experienced employees, the work of determining causes of death took longer. Clark County handled between 3,700 and 5,000 cases a year between 2014 and 2020.

The percentage of autopsies with pending reports after 60 and 90 days increased significantly in 2017, county statistics show. The following year, delays increased. In 2018, 230 were pending after 90 days. In 2016, the number was 96.

The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) placed Clark County on provisional accreditation in August 2019 — which has not been previously reported — because of the pending autopsy reports.

NAME President Dr. James Gill said completing autopsies quickly is a key function for coroners and medical examiners. “It may delay grand jury indictments,” he wrote in an email exchange. “It may result in prosecutors using preliminary autopsy information that may cause problems later.”

Clark County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli declined to comment about whether coroner delays impacted any criminal cases.

The coroner’s office regained its full accreditation in March 2020 after staff addressed the delays. It appears the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting did not cause the delays because pending cases in 2017 were highest in the two months before the shooting, a Review-Journal analysis of coroner data shows.

Gill said provisional accreditation is fairly uncommon. Just six of the 98 offices NAME accredits are under provisional status.

Hiring more pathologists

Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells said that he initially did not know about the accreditation issue and couldn’t remember when he found out. But once he did, the county took quick action. “There is a national shortage of forensic pathologists,” he said. “We are fixing the problem here.”

Within the past year, Wells said he added two full-time pathologists and increased the compensation and the number of contract pathologists. He said county offices with 24/7 schedules, like the coroner, normally experience higher turnover.

Between 2017 and 2019, county officials gave Fudenberg salary increases and bonuses worth a total of nearly $35,000, records show.

In 2019, the year the county was placed on provisional accreditation, Fudenberg listed one of his performance goals as maintaining “both of our NAME and IAC&ME medicolegal accreditations,” a performance report obtained by the Review-Journal shows.

Unlike prior years, when Fudenberg received merit pay raises of 4 percent or more, he received only a 2 percent increase in 2019, but the county gave him a $4,000 bonus that year for his work in Carson City. Others who lobbied received similar payments, county officials said.

The increase, which was less than raises awarded to other staff, was “certainly reflective of our concerns with the office,” county spokesman Dan Kulin wrote in an email.

Wells also said he wasn’t aware of two speeches Fudenberg gave in August 2018 until the Review-Journal provided documentation showing Fudenberg accepted $7,500 in honorarium without taking vacation time. Fudenberg also signed up as an expert witness for Los Angeles County to defend a lawsuit and was paid to work for the IAC&ME, records show. The association hired him as executive director after he retired in 2020.

Sexual harassment, retaliation claims

For some coroner staff, the work atmosphere was becoming unbearable, according to half a dozen staff members. They say they endured favoritism, sexual misconduct and retaliation. Several would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

Caitlyn Ammann, a forensic pathology tech who was hired full-time in 2016, complained to the county in 2018 that a male co-worker repeatedly sexually harassed her. Ammann provided what she said is a county discrimination charge document. In it, she claimed that the co-worker would refer to her breasts as a “boob shelf,” commented on her “curves” and was “yelling and belittling her based on her gender.”

Amman charge of discrimination to Clark County Office of Diversity by Las Vegas Review-Journal on Scribd

Other staff members, who talked on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Ammann’s account, and she provided internal emails and records to the Review-Journal backing up her statement that she filed a harassment complaint in 2018.

Wells said that once the county became aware of harassment allegations, the Office of Diversity conducted several investigations that led to discipline, including terminations, for some employees.

“I’m in total agreement that there was unacceptable behavior in that office,” Wells said in an interview this month.

After Ammann filed her complaint, she emailed that Amanda Senger, another forensic tech who was friends with the co-worker Ammann complained about, knew about her complaint and was treating her differently. “It’s interesting that after a year and a half of his sexual comments, yelling at me, and putting me in my place, he has all of a sudden stopped,” she wrote an OOD staffer on June 12, 2018. “All I can say is both Amanda and (the co-worker) know about the investigation and in their own way have let me know that they know.”

Ammann said a counter complaint was filed against her alleging that she had exposed her breasts. She doesn’t know who filed the complaint, and the county wouldn’t identify the complainant.

Photo in forensic office

In fact, it was Senger who exposed her breasts in the office.

A cellphone photo of Senger, obtained by the Review-Journal, shows her facing the phone, grinning broadly with her office scrubs pulled up to her armpits, exposing her breasts to the person taking the photograph, said to be a male co-worker in the county’s forensics office. The person who took the photo was a different male co-worker than the one cited in Ammann’s OOD complaint, sources said.

It is not clear how many people knew about the photo or how widely it was distributed. County officials were not aware of the photo until the Review-Journal asked about it, Kulin wrote in an email.

Ammann sent an email to the diversity office about the retaliation, but she said then-Assistant Coroner Brett Harding would not forward a formal complaint to OOD.

Harding, who currently works for Idaho’s Ada County coroner’s office, did not return calls or an email seeking comment.

The county refused to release Ammann’s disciplinary and performance review records, but she provided the records to the Review-Journal.

The county also declined to provide annual reviews and disciplinary documents for other staff, like Fudenberg, Harding, Senger or the co-worker Ammann says she complained about, citing personnel confidentiality.

The allegation that Ammann exposed herself was dismissed, according to Ammann and records she provided. She admitted to showing the male co-worker she complained about a corset she wore for back support while lifting heavy loads, and to letting him feel her “glute.” She said those complaints were sustained.

Ammann and other former staffers said OOD put her, and the co-worker she claims harassed her, on two-year, last-chance probation, but Fudenberg reduced the male co-worker’s probation.

Wells said the county recently removed the ability of department heads to change discipline decisions, and now a committee of senior managers decides discipline based on OOD recommendations.

Despite Ammann’s complaints, the co-worker and Senger received 4 percent merit pay increases every year, records show. Ammann received only her 2 percent cost of living increase in 2019 after a negative performance review, which says she failed to meet expectations with her “interpersonal skills.” It also notes the “disciplinary action equivalent to a Final Written Warning.” In her 2017 and 2018 performance reports, she received good reviews and she received 4 percent merit and 4 percent promotion increases in 2018, records show.

Ammann was fired in 2020 after another employee alleged Ammann kissed her on the cheek and whispered that it wasn’t sexual harassment if she liked it. Ammann admits to an innocent kiss but said she never made the comment.

The county promoted Senger to senior forensic pathology tech in October 2020, records show.

“The county allowed this to happen,” Ammann said. “Fudenberg allowed this to happen. And we lost good people.”

Senger said she did not retaliate against Ammann and was not disciplined.

After the Review-Journal asked Senger about the photo of her exposed breasts, she said her personal safety and her job were threatened if she didn’t expose herself. She declined to say who threatened her, reveal who took the photo, or name witnesses she said heard the threats. She conceded she did not report the threats to top county officials, OOD or law enforcement.

“I’m still terrified of him ruining my life and my career,” she said, calling the photo “revenge porn” but conceding she never had a personal relationship with the male co-worker who shot the photo.

Harassment claim at party

Despite women making up more than 80 percent of the coroner’s staff, Senger said there was a “boys club” atmosphere at the office. But she said she had no problems with Fudenberg’s leadership.

Three former employees also claimed then-Assistant Coroner Harding was the focus of a sexual harassment allegation during the agency’s 2018 holiday party but was not disciplined.

Coroner Investigative Forensic Supervisor Timothy Gocha, reached at his new job in Texas, said “it’s not untrue” when asked whether he reported harassment against Harding. He declined to comment further. The alleged victim of the holiday party incident did not return calls.

In response to the allegations of inappropriate conduct, Wells said he discouraged coroner’s office staff from having off-site gatherings that involved alcohol.

Melanie Rouse, who was appointed Clark County’s new coroner in June, said she requires her employees to come to her with any problems. “The cultural shift started before I arrived,” said Rouse, who previously headed investigations and operations in the Maricopa County, Arizona, Medical Examiner’s office. “I just want to maintain a professional atmosphere and instill in employees not just that they should report (harassment) but they’re required to report it.”

King said the county has recently made “substantial and meaningful changes to operations and staffing, and continue(s) working to improve the performance of the office.”

Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Commissioners Justin Jones, William McCurdy II and Michael Naft did not respond to requests for comment about the county’s handling of issues in the coroner’s office.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter and Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com and follow @JGermanRJ. Kane and German are members of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.