Macomb County board subpoenas medical examiner

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published August 6, 2013

MACOMB COUNTY — For the first time ever, the Macomb County Board of Commissioners exercised its authority to subpoena an individual when it ordered that the county medical examiner, Dr. Daniel Spitz, appear before them later this month.

The 13-member board voted unanimously on July 25 in support of a resolution to subpoena Spitz to present himself at the board’s next regular meeting on Aug. 15. Commissioner Kathy Vosburg, R-Chesterfield Township, was absent from the meeting. Although the board has never before utilized this power, Chairman Dave Flynn, D-Sterling Heights, cited a section of the county charter that gives it the ability to do so, if necessary.

According to Flynn, the board has sent six unfilled requests for Spitz to appear before its Health and Human Services Committee since January 2012. The commissioners are seeking the production of documents and information related to the duties of the Medical Examiner’s Office, including the prioritization of examinations, the overall workload, the pursuit of national accreditation, Spitz’s contract with Macomb County and other details about the day-to-day operations within the department.

“Subpoenaing an individual at this level is not something that the board takes lightly, but this was clearly a situation that merited a subpoena,” Flynn said. “We’re just looking to obtain some basic information about the Medical Examiner’s Office, and Dr. Spitz has left us with no other options.”

When reached in his office on Aug. 2, Spitz preferred not to comment on the issue. He also could not say whether he would appear before the board on Aug. 15 or try to fight the subpoena in court.

Meanwhile, County Executive Mark Hackel, D-Macomb Township, dismissed the board’s subpoena as a blatant attempt to stir up controversy and gain media attention.

“Dave (Flynn) is delusional — whatever it is that he’s doing is purely a political game,” he contended. “Every piece of information that the board has requested is already available to them if they want it. This has nothing to do with the county budget and everything to do with berating (Spitz) about the operations of his office.”

“The board is just trying to dictate who comes before them to give them the information that they want,” he concluded. “It’s another obvious attempt to assert control by clinging on to power that they used to have.”

But Flynn insisted that the Board of Commissioners has good reasons for issuing a subpoena. He pointed out that the Medical Examiner’s Office — which is operated by Spitz’s newly formed independent company, Spitz Pathology Group — is not accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), nor is it in the process of gaining accreditation. The board chair believes that the main factor preventing the county from becoming accredited is the heavy workload of Spitz’s office, which could lead to errors because of working too fast or working too many consecutive hours.

NAME recommends that doctors perform no more than 250 autopsies per year, and 325 at the absolute maximum. County data indicates that Macomb County conducted 534 autopsies in 2010, 625 in 2011 and 572 in 2012. Furthermore, along with its work in Macomb County, Spitz’s company serves as the medical examiner for St. Clair County and as an independent consultant. The data states that although Spitz divides his workload with another forensic pathologist, his company performed 826 total autopsies in 2012.

“The quality of the work at that office is something that the board is very concerned about, from a liability standpoint,” Flynn said. “Dr. Spitz’s caseload is just too big. He does too many autopsies every year, and that’s the reason why he still has not earned his accreditation. Would you personally go to any medical professional who is not accredited?”

“We also want to know how much of Dr. Spitz’s time is actually devoted to Macomb County cases,” he continued. “Frankly, Macomb County needs its own dedicated medical examiner, not a contract employee.”

Flynn also noted that the board has received numerous complaints from Spitz’s employees claiming that he has created “a disruptive work environment” because of an aggressive and combative management style. Four employees of the Medical Examiner’s Office have either quit or retired early in the past year, allegedly due to mistreatment by Spitz.

“Those allegations may or may not be true,” Flynn said, “but we at least want to hear an explanation from him about them. We have a lot of questions about the day-to-day operations of his office.”

Another sticking point for the board is the terms and conditions of the contract for Spitz Pathology Group. That agreement, which was approved in July 2012, includes about $377,000 in annual compensation, the addition of a second medical examiner and new administrative duties. By comparison, Spitz’s previous agreement as a single contract employee included a salary of about $200,000 per year.

“I understand why this contract is good for Dr. Spitz, but I don’t understand why it’s good for Macomb County,” Flynn said.

The chairman stated that Spitz’s contract was never approved by the Board of Commissioners because it was drafted while the board was in the midst of a lengthy legal battle with Hackel over which party had the authority to approve county government contracts — a battle that was ultimately won by the board. A copy of the contract indicates that it was signed by representatives from the office of the county executive, the corporation counsel, the finance department and the risk manager. However, records from the Board of Commissioners’ May 22 meeting show that the board adopted a resolution in support of the contract almost a year later.

“It’s so glaringly misleading what the board is trying to do,” Hackel said. “(Spitz) didn’t get a pay raise — his new contract is a lot bigger because, now, he has to pay all the employees who work for his company. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that contract as-is.”

Hackel also pointed out a potential dilemma that could surface if Spitz is questioned before the board. “To even talk about some of these things in a public forum would be extremely inappropriate,” he said. “Dr. Spitz is a key witness in a number of important criminal cases, so he cannot be interrogated like this. The board is stepping into an area that is not only none of their business, but that could create a tremendous legal problem for the Macomb County.”

But Flynn stressed that the board is not backing down from its subpoena. He said that “a line was drawn in the sand” when representatives from Hackel’s office told them on July 25 that Spitz would not appear before them. The board has several options at its disposal, should Spitz ignore the subpoena, he explained, including a request for a court mandate.

“I should also mention that Dr. Spitz’s contract expires at the end of this year,” Flynn said. “If he does not appear before us, then I highly doubt that it will be renewed.”