It was just a few years ago that Los Angeles County's self-styled "Coroner to the Stars," Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi, was demoted for poor management of the busy medical examiner/coroner's office.
After a series of court battles in which Noguchi failed to get back his job, the flamboyant former coroner settled into a job as a pathologist at County-USC Medical Center. Now, his successor, Ronald N. Kornblum, who took over the office in 1982, finds himself and his agency under intense scrutiny by county and outside investigators.
Once again, there are allegations of poor management and criminal activity. Some of the scrutiny was initiated by Kornblum himself, who hired a special investigator to look into reports of wrongdoing.
Consulting Team Hired
How well the coroner's office is managed is being studied by the county auditor-controller's office and a private management-consulting team hired by the Board of Supervisors in June in response to growing complaints. The aim of the private firm's study is to determine whether the office is "providing effective and efficient services."
The district attorney's office is investigating whether coroner's office employees helped mortuaries perpetuate a double-billing fraud involving indigent veterans. Another case involves drivers for a defunct trucking firm who were using phony county identification cards.
Other incidents referred to the district attorney's office include:
- Possible thefts from bodies by a coroner's investigator.
- Illegal use of a coroner's identification card to free someone from jail in Mexico.
- Possible kickbacks to a coroner's employee from a private firm that finds heirs.
- The discovery of a coroner's employee with burglar's tools near a looted Los Angeles residence from which a body had recently been removed.
- The arrest of a coroner's investigative aide in a Memphis, Tenn., airport in the company of a person with a large amount of cocaine.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Albert H. MacKenzie, who works in the prosecutor's major frauds unit, is in charge of all criminal inquiries involving the coroner. He declined to be interviewed.
Some Blame Kornblum
But one former coroner's employee, who has been cooperating with investigators, told The Times: "There are people in the coroner's office who should be in jail right now."
Some blame Kornblum for the department's troubles.
Among them is Dr. Sharon I. Schnittker, a deputy medical examiner for 14 years who resigned last fall to work for the Utah Medical Examiner.
"He's extremely aloof," Schnittker said. "He didn't attend doctors' meetings. It was very difficult to discuss ongoing problems with him. . . . For me it just reached an intolerable level. I found the whole environment just totally chaotic."
Not His Strong Suit
Kornblum acknowledges that administration is not his strong suit. "I'm a scientific person," he said. As for his administrative abilities, he said: "I've never had any formal training. If I have an Achilles' heel, that's where it is."
But his bosses apparently disagree. Given the pressures that Kornblum must endure in the face of a growing workload and the problems he inherited from the Noguchi era, the current coroner has done remarkably well, some officials said.
"In my opinion, Dr. Kornblum has done an excellent job in running a very difficult department," said Richard B. Dixon, the county's chief administrative officer. "He gets high marks as a pathologist and, given the constraints, high marks as an administrator."
For the last three years, county agency heads have been rated on their performances and given pay raises by the Board of Supervisors based on these evaluations. Dixon said performance ratings played a role in raising Kornblum's salary to its current annual level of about $118,000 from $103,000, his pay level when he was named permanent coroner on May 29, 1987.
"It's clear he has been performing satisfactorily or he would not have received the increases he got," Dixon said.
Earlier this year, Dixon said, the coroner's office filled the long-dormant post of chief deputy, giving the office a full-time administrator.
During Noguchi's 15 years as coroner, he frequently clashed with county supervisors over his running of the department. Given to holding press conferences whenever celebrities became coroner's cases and to taking on lots of outside consulting work, Noguchi headed a department that was "basically running itself," according to a county auditor. The office had a big backlog of cases, the auditor found, and a lax security system had apparently allowed coroner's employees to steal valuables and drugs from bodies and death scenes.
Kornblum heads what has become the nation's third-busiest coroner's office, behind New York City and Chicago's Cook County. It handled 17,825 cases last year. Its 16 doctors, including Kornblum, performed 9,027 post-mortems, including 6,218 autopsies.