KCBD Investigates: Exclusive Interview with former Lubbock County Chief Medical Examiner on backlog of cases
LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - In his first exclusive television interview since leaving the Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s Office, Dr. Sridhar Natarajan tells his side of the story.
Last month, the KCBD Investigates Team learned of a backlog of cases at the M.E.'s office, leaving families on the South Plains waiting months for their loved ones' death certificates and autopsy reports.
When the KCBD Investigates Team started asking questions, Lubbock County Commissioner Bill McCay, new Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Andrews, and new administrator Dr. Evan Matshes hosted a news conference.
“I started October 1, identified the backlog or the outstanding cases. I can’t speak to why they exist, but they were prior to my appointment in Lubbock,” Andrews said in the October 16, 2018 news conference.
Andrews said he discovered 427 outstanding cases.
That news conference caught Natarajan’s attention and prompted a sit-down interview with our KCBD Investigates Team.
“I have great concerns over anyone who would say something like that,” Natarajan said.
Natarajan said Andrews was well aware of the number of open cases because he had worked at the office on a contract basis for months before his formal appointment as chief on October 1.
“You have an individual who has been coming to the office for almost a year, they took over as interim chief on August, 5,” Natarajan said. “When you walk in the door of the medical examiner’s office, to your left are all of the files that are open. So the idea of being stunned or shocked or unaware of what is going on, I don’t accept that."
Through the KCBD Investigates Team’s open records requests, we have a better idea of the timeline of transitions at the M.E.'s office.
In October 2016, Natarajan elected to take a pay cut to begin succession planning.
In a letter from Lubbock County Commissioner Patti Jones to Natarajan dated February 6, 2017, Jones wrote, “In addition to the numerous autopsies you have completed during your tenure at Lubbock County, your administrative oversight and completion of the many other duties on behalf of the Medical Examiner’s Office has benefited not only Lubbock County, but the other counties contracting with Lubbock County for those necessary and beneficial services.”
Jones went on to say, “..this reduction in salary is in no way reflective of any dissatisfaction the Commissioner’s Court has with your performance of both your forensic or administrative duties. Instead, this reduction in your salary is the result of your expressed desire to unselfishly redirect those funds to other Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s Office staff who will be assuming said duties from you.”
Natarajan said doctors, including Andrews, began working in the office on a contract basis so he could vet candidates for his replacement upon retirement.
After months of searching, Natarajan said he and his team recommended their finalist to county commissioners.
“There was a written offer,” Natarajan said.
Natarajan said the transition looked promising, until he learned the county had not agreed to the doctor’s terms.
“In August, we were informed the offer was turned down by the individual because promises made were broken," Natarajan said. “We had done our job, we had found a very elite, good person and then human resources and the commissioner’s court then took over. I stepped out of it because I had very little respect for the process at that point."
On August 2, 2018, the human resources director emailed the managing director/senior forensic nurse of the M.E.'s office and asked what her staffing plan would be for the month of August since Natarajan would not be completing autopsies.
She responded that a PCN was submitted to HR on July 9, 2018 but their staffing plan was shut down by HR and the Lubbock County Commissioners.
By August 9, Lubbock County Commissioners held a special meeting, recognizing the retirement of Natarajan and appointing Andrews as the Interim Acting Chief Medical Examiner.
On August 15, 2018 Andrews sent Natarajan an email that reads in part, “As you come into the final few weeks of your pre-retirement employment with the county, I’ve been asked to communicate with you about a couple of issues. First you had raised a question about how you should sign your reports. Please sign them as ‘Deputy Medical Examiner.’ Yesterday, we received a complaint about you from an employee that included allegations about recent actions and behaviors; some of the allegations were startling. Following discussions and consultations, we have decided that during the remainder of your time as an employee, we will intervene, at this time, only by creating distance between you and the staff. To that end, require that you no longer come to the office or enter the building, and that you have no further communications with employees of this office. Please note that none of the staff will be available to help you prepare for trial during or after work hours.”
“I have no idea what the allegation is,” Natarajan said. “Human resources never told me a thing. If you tell somebody they can’t come in the building and they have cases to perform, they have two trials they have been subpoenaed for, but you are not going to give them access to that, you tell them they can’t talk to the employees. I wanted to do this smooth transition, once I got that letter, it relieved me of anything. By 11:00 p.m. or 11:50 p.m. that night, I just said I was retiring."
Following Natarajan’s retirement, Lubbock County signed an agreement with San Diego based National Autopsy Assay Group Pathology Labs for full-time pathology services.
NAAG staff now performs all forensic pathology services needed by Lubbock County and employees the professionals and staff necessary to carry out the functions of the office.
Since that initial contract, Lubbock County has agreed to pay NAAG an additional $600,000 to complete the 427 backlogged cases; cases Natarajan emphasized that everyone knew about and had a plan to complete.
“I was very aware of it, Dr. Andrews was very aware of it, Dr. Pustilnik was very aware of it, and we all had a very good system of getting them completed. Of those backlogged, probably one half had to do with a doctor who was no longer there. My plan was , if the person that we had recommended be hired, I would be confident staying on and I was going to finish those by the end of the year or into early January. There was a plan set up to get those finished that would have been very easily done without paying this ridiculous $640,000 that suddenly has popped up as a need to finish cases. Number two, the doctor who had the majority of cases that needed to be finished was working there and then he was removed,” Natarajan said.
The KCBD Investigates Team obtained a list of the outstanding cases. They are divided between Dr. Luis Flores who is no longer at the office after filing a whistle blower lawsuit in 2015 (the doctor Natarajan mentioned was no longer there), Natarajan, Dr. Stephen Pustilnik who Natarajan said was removed from the office and Dr. Andrews.
“You’ve stripped the talent pool out of the office. The forensic nurse is gone, the managing director is gone, the office supervisor is gone, the senior investigator is gone, at least one other if not two board certified legal death investigators are gone,” Natarajan said.
Lubbock County Commissioners said the partnership with NAAG will ultimately cut the budget for overall operation by 12 percent or $330,0871 in FY 2018-2019.
Still, Natarajan said he has questions surrounding this out-of-state company.
“We don’t need anyone in West Texas telling us what to do in another state. If that is the solution then that is not the West Texas I know,” Natarajan said.
We asked Andrews for comment and he directed our questions to a county attorney.
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