Pierce County Medical Examiner Fired -- Scandal, Sex Charges Culminate In Sacking

Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Emmanuel Lacsina, unrepentant to the end about charges of misconduct and of fostering a "sexually charged" workplace, was fired yesterday.

County Executive Doug Sutherland said he gave Lacsina the chance to resign, but the county government's highest-paid employee said he'd done nothing wrong and refused to quit.

"I really felt it was important to take action to restore the credibility of the office," Sutherland said. "I couldn't see a way to do that when Dr. Lacsina was there, so I terminated him."

Lacsina, 58, who earned $148,000 a year, was the county's first medical examiner. He was credited with modernizing the office since his hiring in 1974.

The Seattle Times reported May 19 that Lacsina had questioned a 23-year-old female probationary employee on her sexual practices during a "Truth or Dare" game at a 1994 office retreat. The Times also published a cropped photo of Lacsina partly disrobed during a performance by a stripper at a 1990 office birthday party, and other details of what a former employee's lawyer termed an "extremely sexually charged work environment." There were also reports of office employees making jokes about the sexual organs of corpses.

When the lawyer had threatened to expose those incidents last year, county officials increased a settlement offer to Eberhard Bruell, a former autopsy assistant, from $50,000 to $140,000 in the hope of keeping it quiet. But Bruell didn't keep quiet, and some on the County Council were shocked at learning about the incidents from a newspaper instead of county lawyers.

The public reaction was fast. Sutherland, who had previously approved a quiet oral reprimand of Lacsina, said now that the facts were out, the medical examiner's office couldn't heal itself as quietly as he'd hoped. So Sutherland removed Lacsina from administrative duties May 21.

But the outrage didn't stop there. A citizens group was collecting signatures to force Lacsina's removal, and County Council members pressed for a housecleaning.

"I spoke to senior business people," Sutherland said last night. "I spoke to attorneys. I spoke to community members. And as we continued to hear from folks, my concern was the longer we waited to have something done, it would just further erode the public's confidence."

Sutherland met with Lacsina and his lawyer Friday and said he asked the medical examiner to consider his options over the holiday weekend. Yesterday morning, Sutherland met with Lacsina and his lawyer again and fired Lacsina, effective at the end of the day.

"We're all very sad and very disappointed," said Joyce Smith, a receptionist in the medical examiner's office. "We thought it was the wrong move."

She said Lacsina started cleaning out his office yesterday afternoon. "He thanked us and said to keep up the good work and keep up the office the way we have been," Smith said.

Smith, who had helped to organize eight current employees to support the embattled Lacsina last week, said the firing was partly motivated by politics. Sutherland is running for re-election.

Similarly, Lacsina's daughter, Anita Lacsina Dunlap, wrote a letter to the local media last week saying her father's reputation was being tarnished unfairly and that Sutherland "did not have the character and honor to reveal the truths in this controversy."

"Unfortunately for my dad, she said, "this is an election year."

Lacsina could not be reached for comment.

County Councilman Bill Stoner said that in the end, Lacsina hurt himself with denials.

"It was time for him to either recognize that he had done something wrong or be relieved," Stoner said. "If you've got a problem and it isn't recognized, then you figure it's likely to repeat."

The office has been in turmoil for much of the past 10 years as fired employees have filed grievances.

Eight current and past employees blame Lacsina's top aide, Jane Weber, as much as Lacsina for the environment in the office. Weber was hired by Lacsina in 1985 and quickly became his top aide.

Two other claims for damages are pending against the medical examiner's office, one from former medical investigator Paul Jay, who alleges sex-based retaliation by Weber, with whom he was involved, and one from medical investigator John Reisch, claiming discrimination and retaliation. Each seeks damages that could exceed $500,000.

Under an "action plan" dated Friday, Karen Goon, Pierce County's deputy director of the Public Works and Utilities Department, will become the interim director of the medical examiner's office, and Bil Moss, a special assistant to the executive, will interview employees on workplace issues. That itself represented a sudden reversal for the county executive, who had appointed longtime County Clerk Ted Rutt to administer the medical examiner's office and conduct a 60-day review.

Rutt pulled out last week before he even started because of questions about his friendship with Lacsina.

Rutt and his wife had vacationed with Lacsina and a friend in Mazatlan, Mexico, April 27 to May 4, and Lacsina's daughter works for Rutt. Sutherland said he had known about the friendship but not the job.

"As soon as it was obvious there were going to be all kinds of challenges against that, I suggested to him, and he agreed it would be best for him not to pursue that assignment," Sutherland said.

Goon will also be responsible for evaluating Weber's position, implementing sexual-harassment training, and helping to recruit a new medical examiner, Sutherland said.