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District medical examiner under fire

A state board declines to nominate Dr. Valerie Rao for reappointment, citing several complaints about her.

By COLLEEN JENKINS and DUANE BOURNE
Published May 22, 2003

The woman who was supposed to make things right in the medical examiner's office that serves Citrus, Hernando and three other counties apparently hasn't lived up to her billing.

At a meeting in Ocala last week, the state Medical Examiner's Commission voted unanimously against nominating Dr. Valerie Rao for reappointment to another three-year term as the district's medical examiner.

That means the office will be vacant July 1, and the board will create another search committee like the one that selected Rao just three years ago.

The abrupt end to Rao's tenure came after sheriffs, funeral directors and organ donation agencies lined up at the meeting to voice critical comments about the medical examiner. The main thrust of their concerns regarded Rao's management, State Attorney Brad King said.

"It had more to do with interagency relationships than anything else," he said.

King was among the speakers, though he would not say Tuesday whether his comments were favorable or not.

It will be up to him to name an interim medical examiner, and he said he did not yet have a list of potential replacements.

"I don't have a real feeling on the situation," King said. "What I said, I said to that commission, and I don't feel compelled to repeat it publicly. I think that the commission has made a decision, and the best thing to do is move forward."

The nine-member commission sits under the Department of Law Enforcement and submits nominations to the governor for medical examiner appointments in each district.

Rao, a commission member, recused herself from last week's vote. She could reapply for the job, but she would be subjected again to the search committee's detailed selection process. No search committee has been selected yet, though plans are under way, King said.

As medical examiner for the 5th Judicial Circuit, Rao oversaw investigations for all violent, suspicious, unnatural and unattended deaths. The district also includes Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

Her contract made her an employee of Lake County, yet all the counties used her services and contributed to her budget.

And it seems many of the counties shared in some form of displeasure toward Rao's operation. Sheriff Richard Nugent said his office has fielded several complaints about Rao from funeral home directors in Hernando County.

The theme of their complaints have all been the same: Rao is difficult to deal with.

Her response on at least one occasion has been that she was not an administrator, Nugent said.

"It's her way and really no discussion," said Nugent. "Our complaint is administrative, her lacking the ability to talk to people and handle that office."

During last Thursday's commission meeting, Nugent and sheriffs from Sumter and Marion counties expressed their concerns over Rao's potential reappointment. They were among a group of people, including funeral directors in the district, that returned unfavorable responses on state Medical Examiner's Commission surveys.

"If it was just one entity or funeral home director, you wouldn't think much of it," said Nugent. "If it was just me I would say it was just a personality difference, but there's three sheriffs saying the same thing; three out of five. That sends a message that the problem lies here."

It's a message that has plagued the 5th District Medical Examiner's Office long before April 2000, when Rao took over the office.

After her predecessor, Dr. William Shutze, retired, officials realized he had been living in Maine for at least two years while his associates ran the day-to-day operations of the Leesburg facility.

His daughter, Dr. Susan Rendon, briefly replaced him as interim medical examiner but quit suddenly after being denied the permanent position.

Since then, county officials have raised concerns about how the medical examiner's budget is appropriated; relatives have complained about the amount of time it took for the office to complete death investigations; and forensic investigators have filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that Rao shorted them on hours of overtime pay.

Rao, who previously was an associate at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, refused to comment. She directed all inquiries toward Lake County Commission Chairman Welton Cadwell, who also chairs the medical examiner's oversight committee - a panel of officials from the five counties that supervises the office's activity.

Cadwell was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

"In all fairness, Dr. Shutze was literally in absentia for two-thirds of his term," said Dr. Stephen Nelson, chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission.

"But Dr. Shutze never had any unfavorable responses. Now, we got someone who has received many. It definitely gives us pause. We have never seen this number of unfavorables ever. Based on that, the commission in good conscience cannot make a recommendation to the governor."

Among the allegations levied against Rao at the meeting were complaints from law enforcement officials that Rao walked barefoot through a bloodied crime scene, probed a victim's bullet wound with an ungloved hand and poked another's victim's wound with a tree branch.

"If that is in fact true, it's untolerable," said Nelson, adding that formal complaints against Rao have not been filed with the commission. "I would say there's a problem."

Nugent refused to say those concerns point to sweeping deficiencies in the medical examiner's office, saying instead that the issues raised point to a lack of communication between Rao's office and law enforcement agencies as well as the public.

"We have nothing against her as a pathologist. As a matter of fact, she is an excellent pathologist," said Nugent. "What it is doing is interfering with the smoothness of the operation of that office."

- Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkins@sptimes.com Duane Bourne can be reached at 754-6114 or dbourne@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 22, 2003, 01:30:54]

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