Coroner’s office: A family affair
Three hundred sixty dollars per month.
That’s how much Dorchester County taxpayers have been paying, on average, the coroner’s mother to “volunteer” at the coroner’s office through June 2013.
She’s described as a “volunteer” because she isn’t a county employee and she isn’t on the county payroll.
That would violate state law, which says public officials can’t employ family members in positions they would be supervising.
Instead, she’s paid a per diem for services rendered. But state law doesn’t stop at prohibiting public officials from employing family members.
It also says they can’t appoint family members to positions that would be under the supervision of the public official; presumably anyone working at the coroner’s office would be under the supervision of the coroner and, in his absence, the second in command – the chief deputy coroner.
The revelation that the coroner’s mother, as well as the deputy coroner’s daughter, both work at the coroner’s office piqued the interest of The Journal Scene, prompting a comparison of offices in the tri-county area.
Using the year 2012, we asked for statistics from Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester county coroners on number and type of deaths, personnel, budget amounts, etc.
To begin with, each office describes on its website what its responsibilities are.
Berkeley and Charleston coroners seem to agree in that both say they are responsible for investigating “all suspicious and violent deaths as well as all deaths that occur outside of a hospital or nursing home and those that occur less than 24 hours after admittance to a hospital.” This aligns with South Carolina law.
The Dorchester County Coroner states that it “investigates all suspicious and violent deaths as well as any deaths occurring at a hospital, nursing home or under Hospice care at a personal residence. And any death occurring less than 24 hours after a patient is admitted to a hospital and all hospital emergency room deaths.”
According to South Carolina law Section 17-5-530, there is a duty to notify the coroner or medical examiner if a person dies:
• As a result of violence
• As a result of apparent suicide
• When in apparent good health
• When unattended by a physician
• In any suspicious or unusual manner
• While an inmate of a penal or correctional institution
• As a result of still birth when unattended by a physician
• In a health care facility other than nursing homes within 24-hours of entering the facility or within 24 hours after having undergone an invasive surgical procedure at the facility.
Dorchester County Coroner Chris Nisbet says his office responds to every death call in the county to investigate it.
“In Dorchester County we transport our decedents [sic] bodies, from wherever they are, and do not use a transport service, and we draw all our toxicologies from each decedent that we send off for analyzation [sic].” – an email from DC Coroner Chris Nisbet to County Attorney John Frampton.
Nisbet says, in the same email, that comparing his office to any other coroner’s office is like “comparing apples to onions.”
Nisbet responded to a Free dom of Information Act request for a breakdown for 2012 and gave a “total deaths” as 632. However, in the county budget for 2014, he reports the total deaths for 2012 as 503.
He says his office is hands-on unlike others in the state because “in today’s court system and the way defense lawyers work, chain of custody is very important.”
Nisbet says he uses Newberry Pathology (which is outside of Columbia) because “I trust Newberry. Private sector companies are a little more attentive to what they are doing than government entities [MUSC]…I had issues with MUSC in the past.”
Nisbet says because MUSC is a teaching college, it has a constant rotation [in its pathology department] and “finding the person who did the autopsy to come to court….”
Further, Nisbet claims, Newberry is “considerably less expensive…MUSC charges $1,500 for just the autopsy. I have the best of both worlds,” said Nisbet, “pleasing to my budget and reliable autopsy results.”
However, Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury says it costs $1,100 for the autopsy at MUSC (only $105 more than Newberry) and $180 for toxicology (DCCO does this themselves, according to Nisbet).
If it is clear that a case will be going to court, Nisbet or one of his deputy coroners, will attend the autopsy along with a detective from the law enforcement agency handling the case.
Nisbet says he is very frugal with the county’s money using attendance at an autopsy as the mandated training coroners must have every year.
“The county cut our budget and took our training money at the same time the state went up in its training requirements.” (According to SC law, Section 17-5-130, H, the county is mandated to pay for any and all training the state requires….)
However, if it is not a court case, he said in a phone conversation, (contradicting his earlier email claim), he “uses a transport company run by 70-year-old Mr. Brisbane (he is licensed and insured, said Nisbet) who charges $200 to pick up at the coroner’s office, take to Newberry and bring back to the funeral home.”
With regard to hospice deaths, which by nature of being hospice patients are an expected death, coroners do not have to investigate them if there is nothing suspicious and the patient is under the care of a physician.
However, Nisbet initially said he does investigate hospice deaths then contradicted himself later, saying he does when necessary.
So far, in 2013 between January and August 21, he says, his office has handled 146 hospice deaths. The only greater number of deaths his office has handled is 181 natural deaths. Both Berkeley and Charleston consider hospice deaths to be natural deaths and do not extract the number.
And this is where Nisbet’s mother appears to come in.
On the DCCO website, under “Meet the Staff” there is a list of staff as follows:
• Christopher D. Nisbet, Coroner
• Alice R. Durr, Chief Deputy Coroner
• Jackie A. Lilienthal, Deputy Coroner
• Melissa D. Burns, Deputy Coroner
• Jean M. Nisbet, Deputy Coroner
• Linda F. Walsh, Deputy Coroner
• Olivia L. Knight, Administrative Assistant
Jean Nisbet is the coroner’s mother and Melissa Burns is the chief deputy coroner, Alice Durr’s, daughter.
This is a state elected officials ethics violation, according to state law. Calling them volunteers does not erase the violation as they should have been appointed under the law, as required, which states that the coroner “shall appoint one or more deputies or investigators to be approved by the judge of the circuit…The appointment must be evidenced by a certificate thereof, signed by the coroner and continue at the coroner’s pleasure.”
Further, it appears to violate the county’s own nepotism policy.
The Dorchester County nepotism policy states:
“Persons in the same family will not be employed … if one directly or indirectly supervises another or interacts with another in the handling of money or compensation. For the purposes of this policy, immediate family is defined as spouse, parent, child…”
The argument of “volunteer” v employee seems to be negated by the wording of “interacts” and “compensation.” It certainly would be against the spirit of the policy.
The state ethics law under the Code of Laws, Chapter 13, Article 1, Section 8-13-100 and 8-13-750 defines an “elective office as one at the state, county, municipal or political subdivision level” and a family member as a “spouse, parent or child….”
It further defines “official capacity” as “activities that arise because of the position being held by the public official and matters that fall within the official responsibility of the agency…and are services the agency would normally provide for which the official … would be subject to expense reimbursement….”
Accordingly, Nisbet, his mother, Durr and Burns are all public officials, having been required to be sworn into their positions by the court.
“No public official, public member or public employee may cause the employment, appointment…of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official… supervises or manages.
“A public official…may not participate in an action relating to the discipline of the public official’s…family member.”
Neither Charleston nor Berkeley Coroners employ, appoint or work with family members.
In a July 2 email, Nisbet stated “I follow all county policies to the best of my ability and I don’t believe being elected should enable me to break county policy.”
Since January 2012 to June 2013, the taxpayer has paid Nisbet’s mother an approximate average of $361 per month to handle only hospice calls for a total of $6,500. Taxpayers have paid Durr’s daughter an approximate average of $85 a month for the same time period for a total of $1,545 to handle “death calls.”
The per diem for them fluctuates between $50 and $135 per call.
For example, Jean Nisbet was paid $50 per hospice call from October 2012 through March, 2013, then $100 per call in April, 2013, then back to $50 per call in May and June, 2013.
Although by state law, coroners are answerable to the county governing body – Section 17-5-100: “Coroners shall carry out orders of county governing body. Coroners must execute all lawful orders directed to them by the respective governing bodies of their respective counties, or the chairman thereof….” – County Administrator Jason Ward said, “I am not their supervisor” with regard to how Nisbet runs his department.
“When contract personnel put in for checks, the department head [Nisbet] signs off on work and purchasing cuts the check.” (Contract personnel are the two per diem family members.)
Ward said his responsibility comes in if elected officials are hiring actual employees through “traditional” channels, but that’s the extent of his interaction. He said his understanding is that one of the people [family member] is involved in transport and the other in grief counseling.
“As far as when, where, and how they operate – that’s managed by that department.”
In the July 2 email, Nisbet noted that, “we are averaging three deaths a day currently.”
Accordingly, the office will handle 1,095 deaths this year, almost twice the number it handled last year.
Nisbet requested and was approved to hire a fifth deputy coroner and purchase a new SUV for the 2014 fiscal year.
Berkeley has not requested any more staff or vehicles for 2014. Charleston did not respond to the question.
As far as the ethical considerations of having his mother and the chief deputy coroner’s daughter on staff despite the clear violation of state law and county policy, Nisbet’s response is simply “You are correct. They are both volunteers in my office.”
In a follow-up email – (We have been unable to reach Nisbet by phone as we are told “he is out of the country and/or not in the office.”) – Nisbet added:
1. Melissa Burns is a volunteer deputy Coroner and has been for several years. I am her supervisor and this is not a violation of any county policy. For confirmation I suggest you contact the County Attorney and research the recent case involving a husband, wife and the wife’s sister who were all employed by Dorchester County EMS.
2. Jean Nisbet has volunteered in my office for approx. 2+ years handling hospice calls and working to better the relationships between those agencies, funeral homes, and my office. Last year, I offered her a stipend to represent her expenses but that has been discontinued after being brought to my attention that it may be perceived by others as improper, Regardless of my belief. I have nothing to indicate her position as a volunteer violates any policy or ethics when she is uncompensated for doing so. I welcome information to the contrary should you locate such.
3. To my knowledge, the Circuit Court is not required to approve who I have sworn in as a Deputy in my office. I have; however, filed the required oath of office for these deputies with the court.
Leslie S. Cantu contributed to this story.