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Finger in morgue mess pointed at CEO Jackson

Kimberly Jacksarrives for work Cook County Medical Examiner's Office 2121 W. Harrison. Friday June 22 2012 I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Kimberly Jackson arrives for work at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, 2121 W. Harrison. Friday, June 22, 2012 I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 24, 2012 9:52AM

Kimberly Jackson was forced to resign from her post as chief executive officer of the troubled Cook County morgue, but she remains on the job until next month — walking in to work each day knowing that the bosses see her as a lousy, inexperienced manager who got her job through family political connections.

“She was in over her head,” a county source said after Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced she had demanded Jackson’s resignation.

Current and former employees point the finger at Jackson for the unsanitary working conditions at the morgue — including blood and other bodily fluid pooling in a corpse cooler that could have exposed staff to biohazards. As the morgue’s top administrator, one of Jackson’s many duties included ensuring the morgue was in clean operating condition.

After the Sun-Times first reported in January that bodies were piling up in the cooler and the staff was complaining about the unrelenting stench, the janitorial staff is now cleaning the cooler regularly, county officials said.

Staffers say Jackson was more concerned with “docking people if they were a few minutes late or had to leave early” — as one employee put it — rather than keeping an eye on the supply shelf, including stocking up on essential tools to conduct autopsies.

“There were days when we didn’t have masks, we didn’t scalpels to cut the bodies, we didn’t have gowns, we didn’t have shoe covers,” said one staffer, who like others agreed to talk if their name wasn’t used. They fear retribution, including losing their jobs, for talking to the media. “There were days we didn’t have toilet paper.”

The Sun-Times tried to reach Jackson by phone and in person. About noon Thursday, she pulled up to her West Side home in her county-issued 1998 Ford Crown Victoria. She said nothing and walked into her home as a reporter asked her questions about problems at the morgue and whether she wanted to defend herself against the critics. She left 30 minutes later.

The million dollar question

While a lack of state funding to bury people on public aid was to blame for the pileup of bodies at the morgue, staffers there question, too, whether Jackson and her boss, Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones, alerted the Preckwinkle administration, which oversees the morgue.

“That’s the million dollar question, here. What was she doing about it — if anything?” questioned a county source.

Jones could not be reached for comment.

Instead of handling more imminent issues, multiple staffers recall how Jackson would walk around telling co-workers that all emails and memos sent to her must include her full name and “MBA” — a nod to her master’s degree in business from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She earned the advanced degree in 2009, according to her resume posted at Linkedin, a professional networking website.

She’s a St. Ignatius graduate in her early 30s.

Her resume also shows she earned an economics degree from Spelman College and then returned to Chicago where, according to Cook County payroll records and sources, she went to work for then-County Board President John Stroger — whom sources say was friends with Jackson’s family. She took a job in the county’s risk management office and after several years joined the medical examiner’s staff, working as a business manager there.

By 2010, John Stroger had died and his son Todd was in the waning days of a disastrous first term as county board president. He lost his bid for a second term in the February primary that year.

A month later, before the general election, he appointed Jackson to the $110,354-a-year executive position at the morgue.

Sources tell the Sun-Times that Preckwinkle wanted to dump Jackson after she took office later that year. But Jones, who is retiring in July after months of being dogged by controversy, insisted on keeping her.

“From Dr. Jones’ point of view, she needed an administrator — she needed a manager in the office,” said another medical examiner source. “We do the autopsies and determine cause and manner of death, but Dr. Jones would have been left without any administrator to do the other work [to] manage the office. She pleaded with downtown to save Kimberly.”

As for Jackson’s county take-home car, she qualifies for it because she’s on call 24 hours a day and could be called to the scene of a death investigation at any time, according to a county spokesperson.

One of Jackson’s co-workers scoffed, saying: “She doesn’t go to any crime scenes.” She is in charge, however, of burials of the indigent — those who die and no one claims their remains — and travels to the cemetery for those services.

Jackson leaves office on Friday, July 13. On the following Monday, Daryl Jackson — no relation — will take over the job. He has 20 years of experience in public health management, according to a short biography provided by the Preckwinkle administration. Most recently he’s worked for the Illinois Department of Public Health as a regional public health officer in charge of the Northern-Rockford and Bellwood-Chicago regions.

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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