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Did coroner violate statute?

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GINA R. HEINE
December 14, 2010
— An investigation of allegations made by a Rock County deputy coroner found "substantial evidence" the Rock County coroner "may" have violated state statutes and the chief deputy coroner "may" have violated county policies related to election campaigning.

The investigation also found insufficient evidence to support claims of an unlawful hostile work environment, retaliation, a violation of the "Whistleblower Law" or misconduct while in public office, according to the report.


Coroner Jenifer Keach and Chief Deputy Coroner Louis Smit denied wrongdoing in statements accompanying the report and said the investigation was incomplete and flawed.


It is not clear what effect, if any, the investigation's results would have on Keach or Smit.


The elected coroner reports to the voters, not county administration, Corporation Counsel Jeffrey Kuglitsch said.


By statute, the coroner appoints his or her deputies and also has authority to remove deputies, he said.


"As such, the coroner has disciplinary responsibilities for those deputies," Kuglitsch said.


Keach told the Gazette she could not comment on any disciplinary action of any of her employees.


Kuglitsch on Monday released the 127-page investigation report and accompanying documents from Keach, Smit and their attorneys after the Gazette filed an open records request.


The county hired Nowlan & Mouat law firm to investigate after Deputy Coroner Michelle Walworth made allegations against Keach and Smit in an Aug. 30 letter. Walworth made multiple allegations including "unethical behavior," the existence of a "hostile work environment" and "intimidation, discrimination, interrogation tactics and political coercion" from April to August.


The investigation's conclusion states:


-- "Substantial evidence" was found that Keach may have violated a state statute by using her position to "assist in the production of a substantial indirect benefit to herself in the form of the retention of the office of coroner in Rock County in lieu of employment of a medical examiner."


Keach's attorney said in an accompanying statement that the investigation ignored an exemption under a state statute that "wholly permits Ms. Keach's purported political activity."


On Nov. 2, Rock County voters approved an advisory referendum to replace the elected coroner with a county-appointed medical examiner in January 2015.


The Rock County Board is expected to decide early next year if the county replaces the coroner with a medical examiner.


Keach in November was re-elected to a four-year term.


-- Smit may have violated the county personnel ordinance and policy "by conducting political activity during hours for which he was being remunerated by the county, and by using his official authority with the county to coerce an employee to contribute assistance to a political purpose."


The investigation also found "direct evidence" that Smit violated policy by handing out and displaying political literature within the coroner's office.


Smit said in his statement accompanying the report that the investigation process was flawed, his actions in writing a letter in support of Keach while at home were not a violation of county policy and Walworth's attendance at an off-site meeting was not coerced.



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