Medical examiner agrees to appear before county board

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published August 28, 2013

MACOMB COUNTY — After refusing a subpoena to meet with the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, Dr. Daniel Spitz, the county medical examiner, said that he is now ready to answer the board’s questions.

Spitz is scheduled to appear before the board at a special meeting at 10 a.m. Sept. 6. The medical examiner indicated that his circumstances changed after he was given the green light by the office of County Executive Mark Hackel to honor the board’s request.

“It’s very simple: I report to the county executive, and he was worried about compromising the Medical Examiner’s Office if I were to be questioned by the board,” Spitz explained. “We were told that the board is primarily concerned with matters of the budget, so the executive felt that it would be OK if I appear before them.”

According to Assistant Executive Al Lorenzo, Spitz’s legal counsel had advised him not to meet with the board because it could result in the disclosure of confidential or sensitive information about the Medical Examiner’s Office. However, once the board clarified that its intent in questioning Spitz was not to damage his credibility as an authority in his field, Hackel’s team allowed Spitz to obey the subpoena.

“There were assurances given by the board that their line of questioning would only pertain to the budget of the Medical Examiner’s Office,” Lorenzo said. “Dr. Spitz is the expert witness testifying in a lot of criminal cases in Macomb County, including murders. The board cannot compromise his role in those cases by forcing him to answer questions that he should not be answering publicly.”

On July 25, the Board of Commissioners voted in support of a resolution to subpoena Spitz to present himself at the board’s next regular meeting on Aug. 15. Although the board had 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.

Spitz ultimately did not show up on that particular date — a move that irked many board members — although his attorney, Stephen Rabaut, appeared in his place to answer some questions.

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.

Flynn said he believes that the medical examiner’s decision to obey the subpoena is wise.

“I think that Dr. Spitz realized his obligation to answer the board’s questions about his office,” he said. “Ultimately, the Board of Commissioners is responsible for approving all contracts with Macomb County appointees. There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered before the board decides whether or not to renew Dr. Spitz’s contract.”

Spitz and Lorenzo, though, disputed many of the statements made by the board. Lorenzo contended that the commissioners have only sent one prior request for Spitz to appear before them — not six. This request was made for July 25, he said, the same meeting where the board issued its subpoena and a date when Spitz was on a pre-planned vacation.

The board has asserted that Spitz’s company, Spitz Pathology Group, has not earned accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) because it performs too many autopsies per year. Spitz countered that he has achieved full certification as a medical examiner from the American Board of Pathology, whereas NAME accreditation would pertain to the Medical Examiner’s Office as a whole.

Furthermore, the board has questioned the $377,000 annual contract for Spitz Pathology Group that was approved by Macomb County in July 2012. Spitz argued that his personal salary of $200,000 did not increase under this agreement, as the remaining $177,000 was included to pay for the addition of a second pathologist.

Lorenzo emphasized that even though Spitz has been cleared to appear before the board on Sept. 6, there may still be some questions that he cannot answer.

“The board can ask him whatever questions they wish,” Lorenzo said, “but the medical examiner is bound by law to protect the integrity of his office. They say that they’re looking for answers from Dr. Spitz, but some of those answers might be venturing onto dangerous ground, from a legal standpoint. It’s a highly unusual situation, that’s for sure.”