A majority of Orange County’s supervisors said Tuesday that they will vote to retain the consolidated operations of the sheriff-coroner’s office but that they favor calling on the district attorney to act as coroner in deaths in which sheriff’s deputies are involved.
In a bid to end allegations of conflict of interest in the sheriff-coroner’s office, Supervisor Bruce Nestande said in a letter to fellow supervisors that they should direct the district attorney to use an independent pathologist for investigations of deaths of inmates in the County Jail or people in the custody of sheriff’s deputies.
Acting County Administrative Officer Larry J. Holms recommended to the Board of Supervisors on April 30 that it keep the consolidated office and have the district attorney use the resources of the Sheriff Department’s Coroner Bureau to investigate in-custody or officer-involved deaths.
But Nestande said that, under Holms’ recommendation, “the perception of a conflict of interest can still occur” when one office essentially investigates itself.
Nestande said he wanted the district attorney to be able to independently “contract with a pathologist of his choice to perform the autopsy” on someone who died in the jail or while in custody of sheriff’s deputies.
Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley said he favors retaining the sheriff-coroner’s office, rather than dividing it into separate sheriff and coroner departments, and could support either Nestande’s or Holms’ proposals.
Gary Granville, the chief aide to Supervisor Ralph Clark, said he saw nothing objectionable in Nestande’s proposal and expected Clark would support it.
Supervisor Roger Stanton said he would support Nestande’s suggestion but in addition wanted the county administrative officer to report back within a year on how the system is working.
“A complete split of the two functions would probably put to rest the major public criticism that the current arrangement has been subjected to, but at a cost of taxpayer dollars that may detract from other county programs,” Stanton said. “It is essentially a question of not only substance but of form as well.”
Supervisor Harriett Wieder could not be reached for comment, but Nestande would need only two other votes to enact his proposal.
The analysis by Holms’ office estimated the additional cost of having the district attorney investigate officer-involved and in-custody deaths, rather than merely monitor them as at present, at $63,381 per year if the sheriff’s Coroner Bureau and Forensic Sciences Services Division were used. If support services independent of the Sheriff’s Department were used, the cost would be $113,381 annually, the analysis said.
Nestande also recommended a reorganization that would have the chief deputy coroner report directly to the sheriff-coroner rather than to intermediaries as at present.
The proposal, contained in Holms’ report, would give the Coroner’s Bureau more independence from law enforcement, according to officials who have studied the matter. In addition, Riley said, such a chain of command would lessen the possibility of misunderstandings between the coroner and his deputy.
Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks said Monday that his office would “cooperate in any way we can” with the decision of the supervisors. He said prosecutors “have had excellent results from the coroner’s office” but would abide by whatever the board decides to do.
Nestande also recommended that the county solicit bids within 60 days for pathology services. A three-doctor firm has held the contract without competitive bidding for 11 years.
Several grand juries have complained in past years about the potential for a conflict of interest in the combined Sheriff-Coroner Department. Although 36 of the state’s 58 counties combine the office, Orange is the only county with more than 1 million residents to use the consolidated department.
The supervisors ordered a study of whether to break up the office last December after an inmate died in the County Jail in what was ruled a suicide. Sheriff Brad Gates confiscated the mental health records of the inmate, John Ray Stephenson, and turned them over to coroner’s officials despite protests from the county mental health workers at the jail that the records were confidential.
While the study was proceeding, Assemblyman Bruce Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) introduced a proposal in the Assembly to separate the two offices in all counties with 200,000 or more people. But an Assembly committee voted the bill down on the same day Holms’ report recommended keeping the two offices together.