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New Coroner Choice Is No Stranger to Controversy

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Dr. Yong-Myun Rho, one of New York City’s top medical examiners, said Friday he has accepted the job of Los Angeles County coroner after the man who was the county’s first choice changed his mind and rejected the post.

In a telephone interview Friday evening from his New York residence, Rho confirmed he had accepted the $150,000-a-year position in one of the nation’s busiest coroner’s offices.

“I think I can handle the job,” said Rho, who added that he has held his New York job as deputy chief medical examiner supervising the borough of Queens since 1978.

Rho will be taking a post that has been mired in considerable controversy in recent years.

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Both former coroners Thomas T. Noguchi, who served from 1968 to 1982, and Ronald N. Kornblum, who held the office from 1982 until last year, left the office under fire stemming from accusations of poor management.

For his part, Rho, 61, is no stranger to controversy.

In the 1980s, he served as a deputy to Dr. Elliot M. Gross, then New York City’s chief medical examiner.

At the time, Gross’ office was coming under intense criticism from many lawyers and pathologists who alleged that its once high quality had badly deteriorated. Doctors alleged that equipment was out of date. And Gross acknowledged that autopsies were being performed in the presence of only one doctor, a violation of city law, the New York Times reported in 1985.

That year, amid a growing investigation of the New York City coroner’s office, the State Board of Professional Medical Conduct said Rho improperly determined the cause of death in one autopsy. They also found that Rho had made seven separate errors in investigating and reporting a gunshot wound in a second autopsy.

A lower court agreed that Rho had not properly performed the autopsies. But ultimately, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned the decision.

“It was nothing at all,” Rho said Friday when asked to comment on the court case. “Dr. Gross was the target at the time. I was somehow rolled into it.”

As a result of the controversy, Gross resigned and is practicing private forensic medicine in Gary, Ind. Gross also was one of about two dozen applicants for the Los Angeles coroner’s post.

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ first choice to succeed Kornblum was Dr. Joshua Perper, the current coroner of Allegheny County, Pa., which includes the Pittsburgh area. Perper said he turned down the Los Angeles job because of the city’s high cost of living.

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, Perper’s predecessor who currently is in private practice in Pittsburgh, said he is familiar with the charges that were leveled against Rho because he was involved in a court case that ultimately led to some of the charges against Gross.

“They were quite serious charges which could have resulted in revocation or suspension of Rho’s license,” Wecht said in a telephone interview Friday night.

“It’s not my intention or purpose to dump on Rho,” he said. “I’m just making the observation that the charges were serious.”

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Dennis Morefield, an aide to Supervisor Deane Dana, confirmed that Rho had accepted the county’s offer to become its new medical examiner. Rho is scheduled for confirmation by the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting.

Morefield and Mas Fukai, chief deputy to Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, said they were not aware of any problems in Rho’s medical career.

For his part, Rho said that when he was interviewed for the Los Angeles coroner’s post last year, “I only answered their questions and didn’t bring it up.”

Rho graduated from Seoul National University Medical School in Korea and did postgraduate work at New York University.

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