Elected by a landslide, Coroner Dexter Amend is convinced he carries a mandate for change.
The Republican’s first order of business is to move in and manage the county’s morgue at Holy Family Hospital.
In order to do that, he needs to evict the region’s only forensic pathologist, Dr. George Lindholm, whose office was relocated to the morgue last summer as a way to serve Spokane and other counties in Eastern Washington and North Idaho who need autopsy services.
Amend, a retired urologist who took office Jan. 1, maintains there is no provision for Dr. Lindholm and his partnership, Pathology Associates, to manage the morgue, and that it is rightly his job.
The dispute, which threatens the way death investigations are done in the county, is one result of political changes at the courthouse. It comes after contracts were inked, a new morgue built, and many thought a professional system of forensic death investigations was well in place.
Part of the issue is that the contract Spokane County signed with Holy Family seemingly allows for county administrative offices inside the hospital.
Lindholm is “just an agent of ours, we’re the responsible people,” said Amend, 76. “He’s contracted to do autopsies for the Spokane County coroner’s office, everything else is prerogatives he’s taken, frankly.”
But hospital officials and Lindholm say present and former county leaders who signed the contract never raised the prospect of the coroner’s office relocating to the morgue in the basement of the North Spokane hospital.
The hospital would not have agreed to that, said Ron Schurra, Holy Family president. The morgue was designed just for autopsies and the administration of those services, which the county contracted to Pathology Associates.
The hospital disputes Amend’s interpretation of the contract, which reads, “The premises shall be used by the county for the purposes of performing autopsies, office space for administrative functions, and evidence and body storage.”
The language was approved in the event the county went to a medical examiner system, and the coroner became the person handling autopsies, said Schurra. It was not written to allow county office space for other coroner functions.
“I’m sorry they’re being led by a coroner to believe that’s how it was written,” said Schurra.
Lindholm says the move by Amend would accomplish nothing, and jeopardize a system that has support from counties all over Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
“If we get down to the contract language, we’re all in trouble,” said Lindholm “We need to sit down and have a discussion about what’s best for all the parties. I serve all the counties. This is a resource for Eastern Washington and North Idaho, it behooves us to pool our resources.”
Amend said being at the morgue would give him greater oversight.
“There would be a significant advantage in being able to watch autopsies and review autopsy reports,” Amend said.
The controversy centers around the new morgue, built by Holy Family at the county’s request. Pathology Associates refused to handle the county’s autopsies without a new facility.
The hospital doesn’t even call it a morgue, dubbing it The Forensic Institute at Holy Family Hospital.
The county’s monthly lease payments, $4,847 over 10 years, are reimbursing Holy Family for the $406,498 it cost to build and supply the morgue.
Though Amend told county commissioners his office is paying rent to the hospital, Holy Family sees it differently.
“The rental is free, we are not charging for that space, the county is only paying for the direct cost of the improvement and the county approved every item and the total cost of that improvement,” said Schurra.
The hospital receives $125 per autopsy for clean-up and maintenance.
Spokane County recoups $100 per autopsy from other counties and private parties for morgue use. The county expects to pay Lindholm for 200 autopsies a year, with Lindholm or associates doing another 180 for nine other counties, the state or the hospital itself.
Pathology Associates charges $1,100 for a full autopsy in a criminal case.
The morgue is a sharp contrast to the dingy space in a basement near the courthouse now occupied by Amend and his two full-time assistants.
Lindholm said the morgue was built so the region could attract a trained forensic pathologist - even if he should decide to leave.
“I admit this is a pretty place, it’s nicer, it’s cleaner, it’s closer to Dr. Amend’s home, but what do we gain by moving the administrative offices down here.”
When asked who controls the morgue, Lindholm replies, “Right now, you’re looking at me.”
Amend, who doesn’t even have a key, claims that’s the problem. The morgue ought to be managed by an elected official, namely himself.
“Don’t get the idea I don’t like Dr. Lindholm, I like him, we’re very fortunate to have a forensic pathologist in this community,” Amend said.
Complicating the dispute, everyone involved on the county’s end - Pat Mummey, former Coroner Graham McConnell and Marshall Farnell, former county administrator - are no longer in their same jobs.
Mummey, a nurse whose term as commissioner ended last year, spearheaded negotiations for the morgue. She ran against McConnell for coroner, beating him in the Democratic primary. Amend then captured 60 percent of the vote in the general election.
Commissioners Steve Hasson and Skip Chilberg signed agreements with Holy Family and Pathology Associates. But Hasson since changed political parties. He, Amend and Phil Harris, who replaced Mummey as commissioner, are all Republicans.
Hasson and Harris are deferring all decisions on the morgue to Amend, a long-time ally of Harris.
Commissioner Chilberg, a Democrat, has concerns about what Amend is proposing. But he acknowledges commissioners can’t manage the affairs of another elected official aside from setting spending limits.
“You’re driving the bus,” Harris told Amend after a meeting with commissioners last week. “You have to determine who’s on and who’s off. Just try to make it as peaceful as possible with Pathology Associates - don’t get them angry.”
Lindholm said regardless of what the contract says, the county would hurt itself by turning the morgue over to a coroner. Even though Amend is a physician, he’s not trained in forensic pathology and would be subject to scrutiny should he have to testify about the details of a death or any evidence in a criminal case.
Amend added he is trained in safeguarding evidence and doesn’t think the public coming into his Holy Family office would jeopardize the sanitized morgue space, which can be locked and made inaccessible.
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