Florida Keys

Under fire, Monroe medical examiner comes out swinging

Keys Medical Examiner Thomas Beaver — under fire for issues such as not getting death certificates signed in a timely manner, not paying funeral homes that contract with his office, and not working regular hours, has come out sharply in his own defense.

Last week, the Monroe County Commission told County Attorney Bob Shillinger to investigate whether Beaver, appointed on an interim basis last June by State Attorney Catherine Vogel, can be removed from his post. He was officially appointed by Gov. Rick Scott on Feb. 25; his term expires on July 1, 2017. He replaced Dr. E. Hunt Scheureman, who resigned to teach.

Tony Allen, owner of Allen-Beyer Funeral Home in Key Largo, implored the commissioners to take action.

Allen-Beyer and Dean-Lopez Funeral Home in Key West have deals with Beaver to transport bodies for $350 each. The owners of the funeral homes said Beaver was four months behind on payments and they've had to wait multiple days for death certificates, which they need to do a cremations or burials.

"We've had improper notices and times for pickups and a lack of paying bills," Allen told KeysInfoNet. "We can be fined $10,000 a day if we don't get death certificates to the state registry five business days after a death."

"I'm waiting on about four death certificates since Monday," said Robert Dean, owner of Dean-Lopez. "It's hard, especially when you have families waiting on resolutions with their loved ones. It's really unfair."

Beaver said the $52,614.16 monthly payment he gets from the county — he decides where the money is spent — is always late, causing his delays in paying the funeral homes.

"I don't get paid by the county until 30 days later. That makes everything 30 days late," Beaver said, adding he wants to review all charges from the funeral homes but paid them before he could so he could put the issue behind him.

Beaver also says Allen and Dean are overcharging him by including transports that are not medical-examiner related.

"They charge me $350 a transport. That's outrageous, it's about $5,000 a month," Beaver said. "Sometimes I have enough information to assess a cause of death without needing a transport. But when they release a body from a hospital to a funeral home, they still charge me $350."

Allen said he's done as many as 10 transports a month for Beaver.

For the delayed death certificates, Beaver said two of his former employees used to input data into the state's Electronic Death Registration System. Beaver said former death investigators Ryan Moe and Zack Smith deleted their accounts when they left. Since Beaver did not use his own account, he said his account was canceled and had to be reactivated.

"My account didn't reactivate until Monday. The gateway is bug-prone and the system is often down on its own volition," Beaver said. "You have to go through the web-based system; death certificates are all electronic."

The complaints from the funeral home owners come a little more than a month after Beaver, 59, used an unmarked, open-bed silver Dodge pickup to transport bodies in Marathon. Sheriff Rick Ramsay, County Administrator Roman Gastesi and other local leaders ordered Beaver to stop it after residents lodged complaints, saying it's disrespectful.

Beaver said he used the truck because if a death involved a crime scene, it would unnecessarily keep law enforcement on the scene for hours waiting for Allen-Beyer or Dean-Lopez. Beaver stopped using the truck but it spurred Gastesi to order an audit of the Medical Examiner's Office.

Ron Saunders, general counsel with the County Clerk's Office, said the audit will review how Beaver spends county funds and if they can be adjusted.

"Part of the issue is the money is given in a lump sum and the county doesn't have any say in how it's spent," Saunders said. "The audit is not looking to find something wrong but rather what the situation is and if there are things that can be done differently."

Beaver believes the audit is retribution for using the pickup truck to transport corpses. He said he hasn’t received a call or visit from any of the commissioners or Gastesi. He received word of the audit through e-mails.

"The contract is pretty clear that I'm an independent contractor and the county can't micromanage me," Beaver said. "I feel like they should have called me. I think this relates to some nasty politics."

Beaver plans to address the County Commission at an upcoming meeting, possibly June 10 when commissioners meet in Marathon.

As for replacing Beaver, the County Commission may have a tough time.

The state Medical Examiners Commission reviews complaints against medical examiners and recommends to the governor to deny or reappoint them.

"For the governor to remove me, you would have to prove I'm wrong on my medical pathology," Beaver said. "I haven't had any wrong causes of death."

The county pays Beaver $631,370 annually. Beaver said he pays himself $180,000 annually from that.