NAAG cites ‘toxic political environment’ as reason to not renew contract with county as Medical Examiner

KCBD Newschannel 11 at 10 NAAG 10/24/2019

LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Two days after KCBD published a report on the 172 families stuck in limbo without death certificates in Lubbock County, NAAG sent a media release and a letter saying, “It is important that the public get the whole story.”

Dr. John Lang has been Lubbock County’s chief medical examiner for less than one month, and he says helping those families find closure will be his first order of business. He says the 172 cases are missing autopsy reports and cannot be completed.

Without that information, he says his hands are tied. “I pleaded with the entity that has those charts, and requested them,” he said.

County Commissioner Jason Corley says those charts, tissues, test results and notes are property of Lubbock County and they are expected to be returned to the county. Corley says NAAG took all 172 unfinished cases to California after its contract ended, and made the inaccessible to Lubbock.

The KCBD Investigates Team contacted NAAG about the unfinished cases. They sent us a letter from their lawyers to Lubbock County claiming they made Lubbock County aware of the 172 open cases and that completing them would require more time and money. The letter also stated they were ready to come to an agreement.

Corley said the commissioners voted that down and they were not going to pay NAAG to do work they had already been paid to complete.

Dr. Lang says the M.E.'s office will continue to process death certificates for the ones he can. Commissioner Corley says he’ll take it all the way to the D.A.'s Office and press charges if he has to.

NAAG said they are still waiting on an official request for the autopsy materials which Lubbock County says they have already provided.

Since that story aired, NAAG released the following statement:

In May 2019, our group announced it would not renew its contract with Lubbock County because of the toxic political environment and “personal political agendas” of some public officials.

It is clear based on the continued statements being made by county officials that these outrageous, false and defamatory activities will continue, with local families caught in the middle.

Our attorneys previously provided the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office with an outline of the steps that are needed to be taken for us to help responsibly resolve the outstanding cases, and on Tuesday had a positive call with that office. It seemed from the call that Lubbock County was interested in addressing this matter cooperatively.

However, it is clear from the misleading statements being made to the media by others within the county’s administration that those officials do not understand or are choosing to ignore the most basic legal considerations for protecting the integrity, security, accuracy and quality of work of a trained, certified forensic pathologist. None of this would be an issue had the county followed our reasonable proposal to resolve these cases and we believe the county could have recruited a highly qualified forensic pathologist as its medical examiner were it not for this political mess.

It is vital that all recognize that the medical examiner’s office is an integral part of the criminal justice system. The accuracy and quality of its work is vital to providing justice for victims of crimes and assuring that the innocent are not wrongfully accused. This role should not be ignored or taken lightly for political reasons.

We regret that local families, and our team, are now both paying the price for what appears to be a political vendetta. It would have been far more productive for Dr. Lang to have returned our phone call last week to try to constructively discuss these issues as opposed to carrying on a media campaign that only harms the citizens of Lubbock County.

The following is a letter from NAAG’s attorney to Neal Burt, Chief, Civil Division of the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office:

Dear Neal:

Thanks for the telephone call today. To confirm, we generally discussed my letter dated October 17, 2019, regarding the County’s pending death investigations. During our call, I noted that NAAG was prepared to speak with Dr. Lang last Friday but that he did not call, email or otherwise correspond.

With regard to the pending investigations, I requested that the County Medical Examiner’s Office prepare a detailed, written request describing the information it is seeking as well as how it proposes the information be transferred. Simply by way of example, we discussed that if the County requests that specimen slides be shipped from NAAG’s office to another location, the County must propose how the material is to be shipped, how it will be safeguarded during shipment, how chain of custody will be maintained, and how the associated costs will be paid. Moreover, it must be confirmed that the Texas Rangers, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Attorney have been advised of any requested transfers.

During the call you mentioned categories of items such as toxicology and histology tests and reports, photographs, and case notes. I asked that requests for such categories of information (or similar categories) be reduced to writing to eliminate any potential for miscommunication or misunderstanding, to ensure security of the information is maintained, and to document chain of custody. As with the specimen slides discussed above, such requests must also be communicated to law enforcement to avoid suggestion of evidence spoliation or tampering.

In light of the pending civil litigation, criminal investigation and Texas Medical Board investigation, I requested that all communications be documented in writing. Dr. Lang may certainly contact Dr. Andrews or Dr. Matshes directly, but any oral conversations must be followed up with written confirmation. We appreciate the County’s cooperation in that regard.

Douglas B. Tumminello

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP

Copyright 2019 KCBD. All rights reserved.