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Preckwinkle on county morgue mess: People will ‘lose their jobs’

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle departs Cook County Medical Examiner's Office Thursday after news conference. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle departs the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, Thursday, after a news conference. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: February 28, 2012 8:14AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Thursday that the management of the county morgue will be overhauled and some staffers will lose their jobs in the wake of reports that hundreds of bodies had been piling up at the facility.

“I’ve been . . . disturbed and discouraged and disappointed by information that has come to my attention about the medical examiner’s office,” Preckwinkle told reporters after touring the morgue and meeting with staff Thursday, a week after admitting she had never been to the office and didn’t think she had the stomach to do so.

While she blasted morgue management in recent days and even hinted she would fire Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones if county policy allowed it, Preckwinkle softened her criticism somewhat on Thursday, calling Jones a “fine physician.”

Still, Preckwinkle told reporters the morgue chief’s future is far from certain.

“We’re going to be conducting a top to bottom review of operations here both internally by our staff and there’ll be [an] investigation by the office of the Inspector General,” she said. “I think it’s inappropriate for me to comment until those investigations and that good work is complete.”

But she said workers at fault will be held accountable.

“I expect there [will be] people who lose their jobs,” Preckwinkle said.

Under the “overhaul,” morgue management will more strictly inventory bodies, including identifying next of kin, check and clean the corpse cooler and discipline staff not performing assigned duties, Preckwinkle said.

She also said more stringent time limits will be in place so bodies are buried more quickly. Her office said this week that 44 bodies had been at the morgue for 10 months or longer.

Preckwinkle’s announcement comes in the wake of Chicago Sun-Times reports that the morgue was overflowing with bodies and that workers were complaining about unhealthy working conditions as bodily fluids pooled inside the cooler.

Morgue staffers told the Sun-Times in mid-January that bodies were being stacked atop each other in blue, plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler. One office source called the situation “sacrilegious.”

Preckwinkle dispatched senior staff to the facility at 2121 W. Harrison last week to get to the bottom of the problem; the medical examiner’s office is technically directly under Preckwinkle’s authority.

Her staff found that 363 bodies were at the facility, but more than 70 bodies of adults and fetuses were later buried in paupers’ graves at a Homewood cemetery. Thursday’s body count was 300, the morgue’s capacity, officials said.

State and county budget woes were to blame for the problem, Preckwinkle said. Last year, the state cut some $13 million in statewide funding for funerals and burials of those on public aid in Illinois. Officials said that money has been restored.

But she said the county also has a policy of taking fetuses — even as other jurisdictions across the state do not — which means more corpses are kept at the Cook County morgue.

Jones was not at the news conference Thursday. Asked why not, Preckwinkle said Jones was working and that she herself was the “most appropriate” person to field questions about problems in Jones’ office.

Clearly embarrassed by the high-profile controversy, Preckwinkle said she told staffers complaints should be filed internally — not with the media.

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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