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The Jessica Lunsford tragedy

Examiner may have quit over job feud

By JONATHAN ABEL and JOHN FRANK
Published March 21, 2007


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Even under good conditions, the Medical Examiner's Office can be a draining workplace: an office where gruesome death is part of everyday business.

But in the last few months, the conditions at the Fifth District Medical Examiner's Office have deteriorated as the office has been consumed by a bitter feud.

Last week, Medical Examiner Steven Cogswell resigned without explanation. Officials said they had no idea why the 47-year-old Cogswell, who had excellent marks on recent evaluations and testified at the trial of John Couey, decided to leave.

But on Tuesday, documents surfaced showing that Cogswell was engaged in a back-and-forth battle with the office's director of operations, Laurie Plemons, who accused Cogswell of creating a hostile work environment.

Eleven of the office's employees joined in on Cogswell's side, accusing Plemons of causing the problems.

On Monday, two medical examiner employees were given notice that they face suspension for insubordination as the office, which handles cases in Hernando, Citrus, Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, seemed on the verge of imploding.

"This is all news to me," said Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the state's Medical Examiners Commission. "It's nothing that's reached me at the Medical Examiners Commission."

* * *

Problems in the Medical Examiner's Office date back to the late 1990s and officials hoped that bringing in Cogswell would straighten things out. Internal county documents and performance reports indicate that he was making progress.

But on Feb. 7, a few days after deadly tornadoes swept through Central Florida, Plemons fired off a letter to the chairman of the Medical Examiner Advisory Committee.

She recounted a stormy meeting where Cogswell berated a new employee over scheduling and other issues, swearing at him repeatedly.

On Feb. 2, Plemons said, Cogswell had a nasty run-in with the husband of an elderly woman who was killed by one of the tornadoes.

Plemons also accused Cogswell of being a tyrannical manager.

Reached Tuesday, Plemons said she had no comment.

But her letter was followed by an angry missive from 11 employees accusing her of creating "a hostile work environment because of her inability to be honest with her employees and work with Dr. Cogswell."

It said the atmosphere in the office was as bad as it was under former Medical Examiner Valerie Rao, who was dismissed under accusations of misconduct.

The letter accused Plemons of making vulgar jokes, cursing at the staff and showing "blatant disinterest in and lack of concern for" an employee who suffered a stroke at work.

The letter also blamed Plemons for a lack of gowns, scrubs, face shields and shoe coverings in the lab and said that Plemons had been protecting an "incompetent and potentially dangerous probationary morgue technician" who doesn't know basic morgue safety procedure such as taking off bloody gloves before touching communal areas.

The conflict deepened Friday, the day after Cogswell resigned.

Deputy Lake County Manager Gregg Welstead said he visited the Medical Examiner's Office Friday at the request of Welton Cadwell, a Lake County commissioner who serves as chairman of the District 5 Medical Examiners Committee.

"I went to go talk to the employees and told them to go do their jobs," Welstead said.

One of the employees wore a T-shirt that read: "What would Cogswell do?" He now faces a three-day suspension for insubordination.

Another employee was "verbally abusive" and didn't improve even after the meeting with Welstead. She also faces suspension. Both employees can appeal today.

Cogswell could not be reached for comment.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7312.

[Last modified March 21, 2007, 06:35:22]


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