A proposal to replace the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner with a Division of Forensic Science and move it to another department would improve oversight and security of the beleagured office, said two state officials said during a May 14 briefing.
“In the long term it will change the way forensic science is delivered in the state,” said Secretary Lewis Schiliro of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
The proposal comes three months after officials discovered drug evidence sent to the Controlled Substances Lab within the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had been tampered with or stolen.
A newly created Division of Forensic Science would replace the OCME and move forensic science responsibilities out of the Department of Health and Social Services and into the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said DHSS Secretary Rita Landgraf.
The core mission of the Medical Examiner's Office is to provide forensic services in support of the criminal justice system, Landgraf said. “It makes sense to move those services completely within the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, where greater coordination and efficiency can be obtained.”
Officials said a Forensic Science Commission should oversee the new division. The Secretary of Safety and Homeland Security would chair the commission, which would include the secretary of Health and Social Services and representatives from the criminal justice system and state legislature. The commission would review operations, staffing and resources, evidence protocols and overall responsiveness to the criminal justice system, Landgraf said.
State law requires a certified pathologist serve as Chief Medical Examiner, appointed for a 10-year term, who can only be dismissed for cause. The for-cause clause protects the Chief Medical Examiner from immediate firing, requiring due process before the medical examiner can be dismissed, Landgraf said.
Chief Medical Examiner Richard Callery, who was suspended with pay Feb. 25 from his $198,000 a year job, has retained legal counsel and the Department of Health and Human Services also has an attorney to provide Callery with due process in the case.
The health department opened a human resources investigation and a criminal investigation followed on the subject of misuse of state funds as the result of private consulting work Callery performed outside the state.
During the briefing, State Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings said Callery was absent for large portions of time, and he often operated his private business out of the office using staff.
The proposal would prohibit outside work or consulting by employees of the new division unless approved in writing by the secretary.
The ongoing, three-month investigation and new revelations about inefficiences within the Medical Examiner's Office remained a concern for legislators.
Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle said he asked the Joint Finance Committee – which decides how state money will be spent – whether they remember issues raised over security and operations at the Medical Examiner's Office and the need for more money to fix it.
“The answer was no,” Lavelle said. “There must have been knowledge of some short comings in the system,” he said.
Rep. Michael Mulrooney, D-New Castle, said departments are required to examine their budgets each year, and the deficiencies in the Medical Examiner's Office should have been noticed.
“I've got to believe that this has been out there a long time simmering,” he said. “People had to know what was going on.”
Mulrooney also took issue with the length of time it has taken to remove Callery from his post. As a former electrician, he said, if he had done something wrong he would have been fired on the spot.
“I don't see why any government official should be any different,” he said.