State investigating problems at morgue
By LAUREN FITZPATRICK AND LISA DONOVAN Staff Reporters January 27, 2012 2:30PM
Rev. Ira Acree, comforts Peggy Hudgens-Wilkins as Pastors of Leader's Network at The Cook County Medical Examiner's office, to meet with officials, examine conditions and offer Rites for the Dead, Friday, January 27, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times.
Updated: February 29, 2012 8:05AM
The Illinois Department of Labor is investigating complaints about “worker safety issues” in the office of the Cook County Medical Examiner weeks after the Sun-Times reported that bodies were piling up there.
Yet the county’s own investigation into problems at the Stein Institute seems to focus — to some employees dismay — on a witchhunt for who leaked information and photographs of corpses crowding the cooler to the press, rather than the causes of the pileup.
The state’s labor department told the Sun-Times a week ago it was “aware” of conditions inside the office that included bodily fluids pooling on the floor of the storage cooler, and on Friday confirmed an ongoing investigation.
“The Illinois Department of Labor is currently investigating the situation involving workers at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office,” Anjali Julka, a state labor department spokeswoman said in a statement. The state labor department has investigative authority over public sector workplace safety issues.
Officials couldn’t provide more details about the probe, but said the “department received a call regarding alleged worker safety issues at the Cook County medical examiner’s office.”
The labor department received an anonymous alert about potential problems earlier this month, Julka said. Since 2010, the state agency has received five complaints about alleged problems at the morgue but details on those investigations were not available Friday.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle dispatched senior staff to the West Side facility last week to get to the bottom of the problem; the medical examiner’s office is technically directly under Preckwinkle’s authority.
On Thursday, moments before Preckwinkle announced to reporters her plans to shake up operations inside the office, she informed morgue staffers that the county’s independent inspector general would be looking for the source or sources who took their complaints to the press instead of to her, a source told the Sun-Times. She then told reporters that after the investigation, “People will lose their jobs.”
She didn’t say whether Dr. Nancy Jones, the chief medical examiner, would be among those shown the door. Preckwinkle has been critical of Jones’ managing of the office and even hinted she’s interested in firing her. Jones has not returned calls this week for comment.
Employees told the Sun-Times Friday they were “freaking out” about the search aimed at outing staffers who leaked photographs showing piles of bodies wrapped in blue plastic tarps stacking against a wall in the cooler and lying on metal trays.
Then Inspector General Patrick M. Blanchard himself spent Friday afternoon inside the Stein Institute questioning supervisors. Blanchard, whose office investigates government fraud, waste and mismanagement, told the Sun-Times he can’t discuss an ongoing investigation but said generally “we are looking at operations” at the medical examiner’s office.
Morgue employees 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 source called the situation “sacrilegious.” Another source said that while roughly 300 is the capacity for the cooler — just under 400 adults and about 100 babies and fetuses were in the cooler.
Jones told the Sun-Times earlier this month the 500 number was too high but that it was definitely over capacity.