Former sheriff: No cop coroner
Zimmer sees conflicts if police officer wins post; candidate says recusals could handle issues.
By Cara Rank, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: August 5, 2010
The former Teton County sheriff said this week he is worried about a conflict of interest if Jackson Police Department Sgt. Alan John is elected coroner.
Bob Zimmer, who served almost 10 years as the valley’s top cop, said Monday he thinks John, a sworn peace officer, may be influenced in potential cases that involve the Jackson Police Department, like an officer shooting a civilian, because of John’s connection to the agency.
“I am concerned that there’s a conflict of interest,” Zimmer said. “I care about this community. I care about the relationship of the coroner position and law enforcement. To me, that is an obvious conflict of interest.”
John is one of five candidates for the hotly contested coroner’s job.
During the Aug. 17 primary, Republican voters will choose from John, Kiley Campbell and James Flower. On the Democratic side, Steven Ware and Dr. Brent Blue are running.
Zimmer said he supports Campbell, son of the present coroner, Bob Campbell. Though Kiley Campbell also works for the Jackson Police Department, Zimmer said he doesn’t see the same issues as with John.
Kiley Campbell is an evidence technician. Campbell said he is a civilian employee and not a sworn officer.
Zimmer offered an example of a situation that would put John, if he is serving as coroner and a police officer, in a difficult position.
“If in fact there was a police shooting, you would have the coroner, a sworn peace officer, investigating another sworn peace officer involved in an officer shooting,” Zimmer said.
John, however, said he doesn’t see any potential conflicts. If one arises, he could use a deputy coroner or a coroner from another county to oversee the case.
“If there is an ethical concern, I can always excuse or recuse myself from that investigation, just like our judge would,” John said.
John will be retiring from the police force in 14 months, he said. If he took office Jan. 1, 2011, he would have 10 months left working for the police department.
He countered Zimmer’s notion that a police shooting might be a problem in Jackson Hole.
“When was the last time we had a police shooting?” he said. “We haven’t had one in the 18 1/2 years I’ve been here.”
His skills as an investigator would be an asset to the office, John said.
“Many of the activities of a coroner involve an investigation, somebody who’s got to find things out,” he said.
John has been a high-profile policeman involved as a plaintiff in a civil sexual harassment lawsuit and an internal investigation alleging he used his office computer to send sexually explicit e-mails. Both instances involved Puzzleface Ranch owner Melinda Kornblum.
In 2006, he settled a sexual harassment suit against Puzzleface owner Kornblum and her husband, David.
In November 2004, John filed a lawsuit alleging Melinda Kornblum’s rejected sexual advances resulted in his termination as ranch manager. The document alleged sexual harassment contributing to his wrongful termination after he reported the claims to David Kornblum.
The Kornblums vehemently denied the allegations raised in the legal action, which sought unspecified damages that would have been determined at a trial later.
The case was settled and the parties ultimately agreed there was a lack of sexual-related contact between the litigants, according to news stories that reported the resolution.
A newspaper advertisement announcing the settlement stated “there was no sexual touching, no stalking, no sexual relationship or demands for sex between the parties,” according to news stories. Lawyers and David Kornblum at the time declined to comment about the case and the stipulation, the stories said.
While John also said he wouldn’t comment, a story quoted him as saying he was “very happy with the outcome.”
John also was investigated for allegations he sent sexually explicit e-mails from his office computer to Melinda Kornblum. Following the investigation, John took 80 hours of unpaid leave, a news story that examined town payroll records said.
John was on unpaid leave from Feb. 21 to March 3, according to the story published in 2005. The leave resulted in $2,500 in suspended pay, the story said.
The unpaid leave came after the Teton County Sheriff’s Office completed in December 2004 two separate internal affairs investigations of the sergeant. The first investigation was for allegedly sending the e-mails, while the other was a “follow-up” to that case, according to law enforcement officials.
Peggy Parker, police chief at the time, would not say whether John was suspended, citing the issue as a “personnel matter.” John also did not comment at the time.
According to Wyoming state statutes, a county coroner deals with cases that appear to involve a violent or criminal action, apparent suicide, accident, drug or chemical overdose or child abuse. The coroner also deals with deaths not attended by a physician and those of a prisoner, inmate or patient.
Finally, the corner is involved with deaths the causes of which are unknown or cannot be certified by a physician, when a public health hazard is presented or when the identity of a victim is unknown.
When such cases arise, the coroner is required to conduct an investigation, which may include an examination of the body and the deceased’s medical history. He or she also may appoint a physician to assist in determining the cause of death and use a forensic pathologist to conduct an autopsy. County coroners do not conduct autopsies.
The coroner also is responsible for disposing the body and the effects of the deceased.
Any U.S. citizen who lives in the state and holds a high school diploma or its equivalent can be elected coroner.
Coroners must take an initial certification course that takes 43 hours within the first year of employment.
Then, every two years, the coroner must take a 20-hour, recertification course following basic training.