ZURIK: Coroner accused of padding paycheck with potentially unnecessary autopsies
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In about two years, Dr. John King, the longtime coroner in Lafourche Parish, earned an extra $69,900 of taxpayer money on top of his salary.
A 2011 ordinance set King’s salary at $25,000. Before the council voted on that ordinance, it included a section that would have paid the coroner additional money for performing autopsies, however, that section is crossed out. The ordinance appears to show the only income a coroner can receive from the parish is a salary.
Despite that, King has been charging hundreds of dollars for external and internal autopsies for years. President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission Rafael Goyeneche believes the payments are a violation of the ordinance.
“They have three choices; salary, salary plus fees, or straight fees. Lafourche Parish opted for a salaried method of payment for their coroner,” Goyeneche said. “I mean, you’re talking about a public official allegedly using his office for his own personal enrichment.”
For 10 years, Dr. King only collected a salary from the parish. However, in September 2021, he began charging for autopsies. Many times, those were external autopsies. Sources tell FOX 8 that’s when a doctor looks at a body to determine a cause of death or possibly draws blood for a toxicology report.
King previously worked for Ochsner, however, his attorney tells FOX 8 that he resigned in August of 2021, just before he began charging for autopsies.
At first, King charged $400 per autopsy. In October 2022, he raised his rate to $500 per autopsy.
“Essentially, you have an elected official that is more interested in profiting from his office. And apparently, his revenue may have been impacted, and his method to compensate for that was to bill the parish additional funds for services that weren’t authorized by parish ordinance,” Goyeneche said.
Goyeneche says there are also questions surrounding whether some of the external autopsies were necessary.
“According to some of the allegations that we received, some of the autopsies that were performed were allegedly unnecessary, because some of the autopsies were performed on people whose treating physicians called their method of death natural causes,” Goyeneche said.
A death investigation report obtained by a law enforcement source reveals King decided to perform an autopsy on a 57-year-old man who had a medical history of Cirrhosis of the liver, Hepatitis C, and Hypertension. That report also notes that King stated he wanted to autopsy the decedent “to meet his ten bodies a month.”
Another report obtained by a law enforcement source notes a 47-year-old white female died of a possible drug overdose. An emergency room blood test found heroin, cocaine, and meth in the woman’s system. The report notes she had no family, however, King still told his staff he wanted to externally view the body. For that external autopsy, invoices show he charged $400.
“So the allegations are that there became a quota system in 2021. And that’s supported, at least circumstantially, by the numbers that that you confirm, and that we’ve been reported to us as well,” Goyeneche said.
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In 2018, the two doctors who were paid by the parish to perform autopsies did 58 of them. In 2019, the doctors did 73 autopsies. However, in 2022, the first full year that King did all the autopsies, he performed 100 of them.
King’s attorney Chuck Credo says he’s unaware of any claim that King had a quota for the number of autopsies he wanted to perform. Credo believes a section of state law allows King to charge for autopsies as well as collect his salary, even if the parish ordinance doesn’t allow it. He’s asked the Attorney General to weigh in on the issue.
Lee Zurik: “So, you think the AG is going to find what he is doing is fine?”
Chuck Credo: “I do. I have every reason to believe that based on my legal research.”
Credo claims King started doing autopsies because he couldn’t find a pathologist to perform them. He says there is a shortage of forensic pathologists in the state. However, sources tell FOX 8, King is not a licensed forensic pathologist.
“Dr. King either had to either step up and do the autopsies himself or find somebody who can do them. The only resources at that moment, that could do them two years ago, one was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and one was in Beaumont, Texas,” Credo said.
However, it appears King had the resources to do the autopsies locally, but stopped using them. Records obtained by FOX 8 show that dating back to 2015, King had two other doctors, Dr. Patrick Walker and Dr. Jack Heidenreich, performing autopsies for his office.
Walker says he was confused when the coroner’s office stopped calling him to perform autopsies.
“Shortly after Ida, I was never called for any more autopsies. And I kind of found it strange, so I asked one of the investigators, you know, ‘what was going on?’ And I was told that the coroner, Dr. King, said that we were not interested in doing autopsies,” Walker said.
However, Walker maintains he never told anyone that he didn’t want to perform autopsies anymore.
Zurik: “So were you fired?”
Walker: “I would like to say I was fired because I was never called. And I was never assigned any further autopsies after.”
Zurik: “So were you fired?”
Walker: “I was fired. Yes.”
Zurik: “So you wanted to continue doing autopsies there?”
Walker: “Well, I had no interest in stopping.”
King wouldn’t do an interview with FOX 8 to answer our questions, but Credo says he will encourage him to do so once the Attorney General’s opinion is returned.
Zurik: “But he had two on staff who were doing them and he decided to do them himself instead of using them.”
Credo: “Yeah, that you’re going to have to ask him for.”
Zurik: “He won’t do an interview with us though.”
Credo: “Well, we’ll work on that as soon as the AG’s opinion is … I certainly will advise him to do an interview after the AG renders his opinion on the autopsy fees and the autopsy questions.”
Zurik: “But the way this appears is that he had two doctors doing autopsies for the office, fires them, and decides to do them himself.”
Credo: “And that may likely be the appearance of it … But, I’m not certain as to why the doctors may have been dismissed or let go … I am certain as to why he chose to do them, because there was no other resources to do them, other than these doctors.”
Walker believes King fired him and decided to do the autopsies himself in order to supplement his income.
“I think he’s doing it to subsidize his income. Because as a coroner, you know, you get paid a salary. And you’re not supposed to charge the coroner’s office, or the parish, any other subsequent fees for the autopsies that are done. So, to my mind is basically illegal … I think it’s wrong. It’s unethical to say at the best,” Walker said.
Despite the council ordinance that sets King’s salary at $25,000 per year, at some point, he began collecting $50,000 per year. It’s unclear how his salary increased or if that increase was approved. In 2022, King’s invoices for autopsies show he earned an additional $54,000 in taxpayer money on top of the $50,000 salary.
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