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Coroner race in Stevens County evenly split after incumbent fired her opponent

Oct. 5, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 26, 2022 at 10:25 p.m.

Sampson and Colvin
Sampson and Colvin

Only two votes separated the two candidates running for Stevens County coroner in the August primary election. The closeness of the contest may only be matched by the contentiousness between the two former co-workers now competing to run the office.

Less than three weeks after the chief deputy coroner of Stevens County announced she would run for county coroner, her boss and opponent fired her. Conflicting accounts of why she was fired and who is more qualified for the position have fueled a tight, confusing campaign.

“I’ve never seen a race this close,” Coroner Lorrie Sampson said.

Stevens County Coroner Lorrie Sampson 
Stevens County Coroner Lorrie Sampson 

First elected in 2014, Sampson, 53, is running for her third term. She garnered 6,635 votes in the August primary, while her ex-chief deputy, Ramona Colvin, took 6,637. They will have a rematch in the Nov. 8 general election.

“I knew it was going to be hard to unseat an incumbent,” Colvin said. “I didn’t realize it would be that close of a race. I figured it would be a landslide one way or another.”

Both are running as Republicans, but only Colvin, 39, is endorsed by the county GOP. The Stevens County Republican Central Committee contributed $4,000 to Colvin’s campaign. In fact, Colvin has raised more than $18,000. Sampson, meanwhile, is working with less than $2,000 of her own money.

Ramona Colvin
Ramona Colvin

A coroner is an elected official tasked with overseeing death investigations in a county. The coroner determines the cause and manner of death by working with forensic pathologists who perform autopsies on the medical side and law enforcement on the investigative side. The coroner does not perform autopsies, instead sending bodies to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“It’s a unique job because you are not the forensic pathologist, you are the administrator of the entire system,” said Timothy Grisham, deputy director of Washington Association of County Officials.

The coroner’s salary in Stevens County is $79,000.

Sampson has said that her opponent is underqualified because she does not have a medical degree. However, there are no requirements to run for coroner in Washington – only that they must complete a certification within 12 months of becoming elected.

Coroners come from a variety of backgrounds, Grisham said, including mortuary services and law enforcement, and some even go to school to become death investigators. County prosecutors act as coroner in Washington counties with fewer than 40,000 people. Larger counties like Spokane use medical examiners, who are appointed physicians.

The termination

Colvin was fired on March 7. Her disciplinary letter, signed by Sampson, cites a number of past and current disciplinary actions including for using the transportation services of a local funeral home that Sampson instructed her not to use. The letter also accuses her of “failing to make meaningful progress” on an archiving project, “refusing to come to the office when specifically requested” by Sampson and failing to respond to Sampson’s phone calls for the 17 days since Feb. 18 – about the time Colvin announced her candidacy.

Communication continued during this time, however, through email. Some of these emails were attached to the termination letter.

“I responded about anything with work through email, but I wouldn’t take her personal calls,” Colvin said. “She was calling me constantly begging me not to run against her.”

Colvin documented her official communications with Sampson by carbon copying the county commissioners and the county’s human resources department.

“From the day that she knew I was running, she started making my work atmosphere hostile,” Colvin said.

In an email exchange on Feb. 21, Sampson asked Colvin to prioritize a records archiving project that Sampson had assigned to Colvin three years earlier.

Colvin responded that a June deadline was unfair with all her other duties and 148 hours a week of call time. “I must admit this feels like retribution from my announcement that I am going to run against you,” Colvin wrote, adding that she would be “more than willing to assist” if Sampson would help and dedicate more time to her elected duties.

In a March 3 email exchange, Sampson asked Colvin, who typically worked from home, to be on call March 7 and 9, and to come to the office on March 10 so they could begin the archiving project together.

In reply, Colvin refused to work on those days and asked to only be scheduled five days a week to ensure she would not go over her 40-hour limit. She also complained that Sampson required her to always be on call and available to work, with little notice and without extra compensation. In fact, the deputy coroner who replaced Colvin after she was fired filed a state Labor & Industries complaint against the county for being forced to always be available to work. The complaint has not been settled.

Sampson listed Colvin’s refusal to work as “direct insubordination” on the disciplinary letter.

But the final straw, Sampson said, was Colvin accessing files that she was not supposed to. These files contained sensitive materials, including medical records, insurance and personal information, social security numbers – “information that she as an investigator did not need access to.”

Colvin said she had always had access to those files, that they were necessary for her job and Sampson didn’t tell her when she lost access.

On Feb. 23, Colvin emailed Sampson asking why the files were erased. Sampson responded three days later that the files were not erased, “only moved to a more convenient location” and that she could still file her reports.

Colvin submitted a help desk ticket to the IT department asking to regain access, which was granted.

The disciplinary letter stated that Colvin “went behind the elected officials back” and accessed the unauthorized files “by means of deception.”

By Sampson’s interpretation, Colvin was actively trying to be fired in order to be make herself look like the victim and be freed to campaign full time.

“I knew what it would look like publicly if I came out and fired her. But she left me no choice here.”

What proves this point, Sampson says, is that Colvin revealed she had an appointment with her attorney in the March 3 email, then showed up with that attorney to her termination meeting, even though she wouldn’t have known what the meeting was about.

“That tells me she was expecting it. That tells me she intended on getting fired.”

The only thing Sampson regrets is not firing her sooner, when she refused to come to work. “I would have respected her more if she quit.”

Sampson said that Colvin had been a great employee before she decided to run against her.

“She was very trusted. She was my closest confidant when it came to work,” Sampson said. “I mean, we deal with a lot of stressful things and you have a very tight relationship with that person that is in the position, and there is absolute trust.”

Feud with local funeral home

Some of Colvin’s biggest campaign contributions were associated with Danekas Funeral Chapel & Crematory, the only funeral home in Stevens County. Collectively, Danekas, Inc. and family donated $2,500.

Another item from Colvin’s disciplinary letter: repeatedly using Danekas’ transportation services when she was ordered not to.

The coroner’s office stopped using Danekas in 2018 when Sampson said she discovered numerous instances of “fraudulent billing” adding up to $14,860 dating back to 2014.

A police report based on Sampson’s allegations was made in 2020, but the investigator did not find evidence of criminal conduct.

“After meeting with Danekas, it is apparent there is a misunderstanding about the legality of billing practices between the Coroner’s office and Danekas,” the report concluded. County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen declined to prosecute, calling it a civil matter.

Danekas’ lawyer, Tom Webster, sent the county commissioners a libel claim last week, alleging damages totaling just over $1 million, and demanding Sampson resign and issue an apology.

The letter complains Sampson brought up the fraud claims again in Colvin’s termination letter, which was then published in local newspapers, thereby slandering the funeral home. It also complains of Sampson “maliciously spreading vile, filthy, and loathsome untruths” about the Danekas family. It states that Colvin will testify to this libel and slander.

On Feb. 25, Colvin approved Danekas to move a body from a scene to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy.

With the Spokane-based transport company the coroner’s office contracts with, response times can take up to six hours to reach remote parts of the county, Colvin said. This case was time-sensitive and the family already had chosen to use Danekas’ funeral services, she said.

The Danekas campaign contributions were made two days later. If elected, Colvin said she will use Danekas’ transportation services again.

Sampson said she used an informal bid process to find the cheapest agency with the best services, Inland Mortuary Services in Spokane.

“I would not abuse my position and give business to companies that pad my campaign,” Sampson said. “That is so unethical.”

Stevens County Sheriff Brad Manke, who has endorsed Colvin, said Sampson is often difficult to get a hold of and that poor response times impact the operations of his office.

“If we have a death in the north end of county, my deputies are waiting hours and hours on scene,” he said, “costing deputies all that extra time when they could be out doing something else besides waiting with grieving families.”

Sampson had a strained relationship with the previous sheriff, Kendle Allen, too. A rift between their offices led Allen to ban his deputies from talking directly to the coroner.

A previous job

Sampson has a disciplinary record of her own from her employment as a death investigator for Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office from 1999 to 2010.

Known at the time as Lorrie Hegewald, Sampson’s record included verbal reprimands involving conflict with a coworker, attendance issues, poor work performance and making unauthorized medical speculations to family members of deceased.

In fall 2009, Sampson was given 80 hours of unpaid suspension and was required to attend professionalism training.

“The tone and substance of your response demonstrates no remorse for your actions and continues your pattern of attempting to intimidate, control and blame others,” medical examiners Dr. Sally Aiken and Dr. John Howard wrote in her reprimand.

She resigned in July 2010 after she was asked to respond to more concerns.

Sampson declined to comment on her record in Spokane because she said she signed a confidentiality agreement.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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