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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 11:06 am

Coroner’s office switches pathologists amid accusations of politics

Cinda Edwards
Sangamon County coroner Cinda Edwards says politics have nothing to do with her decision to stop using Dr. John Ralston to conduct autopsies.

But Ralston and others aren’t so sure, given that the doctor’s wife may run for coroner in next year’s election.

Ralston says he found out that Edwards will no longer use him to perform autopsies when he read a Wednesday story in the State Journal-Register in which the coroner said she is switching pathologists because autopsy reports haven’t been completed. In an interview, Edwards said she is still waiting for reports on deaths that occurred as long ago as June.

Ralston acknowledged that some reports are overdue. He blamed a problem with a transcriptionist. He said the coroner at no point told him the problem was serious enough that she would employ a different pathologist.

“Frankly, I just don’t understand the suddenness of this and the unexpectedness of this,” Ralston said. “She said ‘I need some reports’ and I said I’d do my best to get them to her as soon as possible. I thought we were just proceeding as usual.”

Edwards told the State Journal-Register that she would no longer use Ralston one day after she asked Jeff Lair, Morgan County coroner, if the doctor’s wife would be running for coroner next year. Lair said the conversation occurred in the morgue at Memorial Medical Center, where he was helping Ralston with an autopsy. He said that the doctor was not present.

“She said she’d heard a rumor that Rachel (Ralston) was going to run for coroner and asked if I’d heard anything,” Lair recalled. I told her no, I hadn’t heard anything. I told her it was just a rumor.”

Edwards confirmed the conversation with Lair.

“I didn’t know if the delay in the reports could be related to that,” Edwards said.

Edwards said she made it clear to Ralston that she needed reports promptly.

“I’ve talked with him until I’m blue in the face,” Edwards said. “I know that other coroners have the same issue. It was getting bogged down enough that I felt that I just had to pull the plug until he got caught up. … I don’t take this lightly. I think he’s a marvelous pathologist, and it breaks my heart. It really does.”

But Ralston said that he believes that politics might be behind the coroner’s decision.

“I would hate to see the office used politically to try to terminate a qualified physician just because his wife is interested in the office,” Ralston said.

Rachel Ralston, the pathologist’s wife, could not be reached for comment. But Jim Moody, chairman of the Democratic Party of Sangamon County, confirmed that she is interested in running against Edwards, a Republican, next year. He scoffed at Edwards’ assertion that her decision to stop using Dr. Ralston is based on late autopsy reports.

“It’s purely political – clearly,” Moody said. “She finds out that Ralston’s going to run and she terminates her husband. You check with all the other coroners around the state he (Dr. Ralston) works for, you’ll find he has a very good reputation.”

The coroner’s office has been mired in controversy for more than a year. Top county officials last spring forced Susan Boone, Edwards’ predecessor, to resign, saying they questioned her competence. Edwards, the wife of Springfield Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, won the appointment amid speculation that her political connections helped sway the county board, which has rejected the idea of replacing an elected coroner with an appointed medical examiner on the grounds that a medical examiner system is too expensive.

Rachel Ralston is the Democratic frontrunner at this point, Moody said. She holds a degree in mortuary science and works as a deputy coroner in Madison and Bureau counties, he said.

“I think she’d be a spectacular candidate,” Moody said. “She’s just got a wealth of credentials. … Cinda Edwards has no credentials – she’s not qualified for that position It’s my opinion that the only reason she’s here is because Frank Edwards pressured the county board to put her there.”

Edwards called Dr. Ralston “brilliant” and said that she will consider using him again if he catches up on paperwork.

“I’m just so frustrated trying to get these reports,” the coroner said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com

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