ANALYSIS OF THE CORONER’S OFFICE ACTIVITIES: 2015-2018
This analysis and investigation was conducted by Dr. Bill Willis (Harvard University) and Dr. Louis Howe (University of Massachusetts/Amherst) from source records obtained via: Open Records requests to the Office of Douglas County Board of Commissioners Chair, Dr. Romona Jackson Jones; interviews with Coroner Renee Godwin; reviews of films of the County Commission Board meetings; laws and regulations governing the Coroner’s office; and court filings.
This investigation was prompted by several factors: (a) the Douglas County 2016 (Final) Performance Audit report which noted discrepancies in the former Coroner’s records that were available after the disappearance of the office’s computer. A laptop was subsequently returned to the County but contained no data regarding the Coroner’s office as the hard drive had been wiped clean, according to the County’s IT Department.; (b) the nearly two years of complaints and accusations of wrongdoing lodged against Coroner Renee Godwin by a citizen, Mr. Larry Pierce, before the Board of Commissioners. Pierce’s presentations can be difficult to follow because he makes statements that seem highly improbable, i.e., accusing Coroner Godwin of padding her death count when she has officially filed documents to back up the count. ; (c) a June 18, 2018 appearance before the same governing body by former Coroner Randy Daniel during which he stated that he was just peacefully “retired” and made very emotionally charged remarks to the Commissioners . However, less than a year later, he posted the following on social media regarding his son-in-law, Mark Alcarez (whom he stated would make him, Mr. Daniel, his Deputy Coroner, in response to a FB post that he should also run): Please vote for Mark Alcarez in the Democratic primary for the office of Coroner he was my deputy for years and is the best he’s Dedicated to serving the families as I was and a great Christian man its time out with the cheating and corruption we have there now and in with a Christian organization that cares for the families and not in it for the money don’t take my word check it out my budget was about 130k and hers this year is over 300.000 this year and she goes on 0 call and payed her deputies to go on calls plus has a secretary paying him as much as I made a total waste of money I never had a office assistant plus I went on 70 percent of my calls Please vote mark alcarez for-coroner and let’s bring Douglas county back to commonsense.
We find discrepancies in Daniel’s statement as the budget chart below indicates.
Based on these public claims and allegations, we examined the available records. Herein are the findings:
Discrepancies in Records of Death Investigations and Transports
Records for the last two years in office for Former Coroner Randy Daniel and first two years in office for Coroner Renee Godwin were reviewed.
2015 – 126 Death Investigations reported and 100 Transports were paid to Deputies. However, there are only 98 Death Certificates on file with the Coroner’s office. According to these records, Mr. Daniel attended 26% of calls.
*2016 – 157 Death Investigations reported and 119 Transports were paid to Deputies. 126 Death Certificates are on file with the Coroner’s office. 25% of calls were attended by Mr. Daniel, according to County payment records.
*These figures further substantiate the discrepancies that the Douglas County 2016 (Final) Performance Audit spot review highlighted in the Coroner’s office.
2017 – 276 Death Investigations reported and 157 Transports were paid to Deputies. 301 Death Certificates are on file with Coroner’s office. That would substantiate that 43% of calls were attended by Coroner Godwin.
2018 – 286 Death Investigations reported and 142 Transports were paid to Deputies. 318 Death Certificates are on file with Coroner’s office. These figures substantiate the fact that Coroner Godwin attended 50% of calls.
Before reviewing each budget year, we examined the state regulations governing compensation for Coroners and Deputies, pursuant to O.C.G.A. 45-16-27 and 2009 local legislation – HB 653 (for Douglas County only) sponsored by then State Rep. Bill Hembre. In 2015 and 2016, while Randy Daniel was in office, the Coroner’s office was not in compliance with the law on compensation for Deputies, etc.
The pertinent section of the Georgia Code is quoted below.
In 2017, when Coroner Godwin assumed the duties, the office was brought into compliance with State regulations with regard to compensation and contract status. Additionally, the new Coroner had to make a transition to change all of the office signage (County property bore the name of the previous Coroner; uniforms were added so staff could be recognized as County officials at a death event; the County van was repaired for use (instead of personal vehicles); plus County deaths more than doubled over previous year. The Coroner is on call 24 hours a day (even though it is designated a part-time job), it was determined that the County would provide a travel allowance to ensure that the Coroner could have official transportation for use (not personal vehicles) should a call be received after normal business hours.
Note: The 2017 budget that was set by the outgoing Administration, was less than the previous two years (2015 & 2016), even though actual expenditures exceeded the previous year’s budget.
See County Budget information chart below from County:
Modernization of the Douglas County Coroner’s Office:
Since taking over the Coroner’s duties in Douglas County, Renee Godwin has made changes in how the Coroner’s office functions, generally moving from less formal to more formal practices.
Some examples: Where the office used to rely on a few third-party non-employee vendors to help investigate deaths, transport bodies, and clean up crime scenes; Coroner Godwin has hired official contractors and paid their required FICA wages to perform these tasks.
Where vendors once used their private vehicles borrowed from their own businesses for these services, Coroner Godwin now uses officially marked Douglas County Coroner vans.
While the Coroner once used various mortuaries to house bodies awaiting release to families, the Coroner’s office now has its own refrigeration unit where the deceased can be properly stored. (Again Death Investigations by the Coroner’s office has increased from 126 in 2015 to 286 in 2018 – see above chart).
The office has chosen to pursue a more professional character, moving from informal personal relationships to public administration methodologies with the goal of earning public trust and avoiding any appearance of impropriety. Douglas County has in many ways outgrown its homogeneous rural and small-town political culture. It is no longer wise to depend on word of mouth and reputation to insure public services are being delivered fairly and honestly.
In a diverse community, people who are not privy to long-standing personal relationships can become wary when it is not clear how things get decided or done. Even if there is no evidence of inappropriate behavior, when relatives of a public official are benefitting from county service payments, the issue of nepotism is raised; a decision to choose one vendor over another could foster similar questions; the awarding of an assignment for crime scene cleanup could bring up questions regarding the basis for the decision or whether all vendor payments were justified. For example, looking at invoice records for the 20 months between March 2015 and October 2016, during eight different months, five of the months consecutive, there were exactly (oddly, the same number each month) 10 death investigations, all invoiced by the same vendor (Daniel’s son-in-law, Mark Alcarez’s company), which seems an unusual coincidence. Also, it raises eyebrows when vendors can claim mileage on vehicles that are also used in their personal businesses.
In cases of questionable death, it is reassuring for the County to have a public Coroner’s refrigeration unit which might facilitate a better, more transparent investigation into causes of death, even as it leaves families freer to select their preferred funeral home when the body is released and insures that no mortuaries are getting favorable treatment (or whose owners may be disgruntled after they provide temporary storage for bodies later removed to a competitor’s funeral home).
There have been several legal actions against Coroner Godwin, including demands for a Grand Jury investigation early in her term in office; a “Whistleblower” lawsuit by dismissed Deputy Wayne Rogers; and a filing from the Judiciary Court on the Child Abuse and Fatality Committee. Additionally, Coroner Godwin filed and was granted an Order of Protection against Stalking by Larry Pierce.
Below are the documents and facts regarding those lawsuits:
Grand Jury Investigation – After being in office for only three months, a citizen of Douglas County requested a grand jury investigation of Coroner Godwin. The implication was that something criminal or fraudulent lay behind her budget representations before the Board of Commissioners. As the following document shows, the Grand Jury did not find enough questionable facts to warrant forming a committee to investigate the allegations.
See Grand Jury Action Document Below
The Stalking Order of Protection granted by the Court to Coroner Godwin against Larry Pierce apparently only stoked his ire because afterwards, he doubled his verbal accusations and wore a hat mocking the court’s order to the Board of Commissioners meeting that read: STALKER.
The “Whistleblower” lawsuit filed by former Deputy Coroner Wayne Rogers, was recently served on Coroner Godwin and the County, but Mr. Rogers appeared on Fox5News with the files that he was dismissed for removing from the office. HIPPA Policy, the Douglas County Merit System Division 11, Section 13-14, and the Georgia Code O.C.G.A. 45-16-27 (c) prohibits disclosure of confidential information of the deceased without a court order. Wayne Rogers has previously held a position of public trust, abused it and was dismissed. Although, he ran for the Coroner’s position himself, he convinced Coroner Godwin to give him another chance and against advice from others, she did. Once again, he misused his position. The accusations of Coroner Godwin changing the names of pronouncers on paperwork has proven to be untrue since the certificates in questions were filed by the funeral home directors who put in the name of the head Coroner (not the Deputy). Also, one might question whether Commissioner Ann Guider Jones should have spoken directly to Coroner Godwin, as the duly elected officeholder, and not gone to a subordinate to discuss whatever concerns she had with the department.
Child Abuse Protocol and Child Fatality Committee – Recently, Chief Judge David Emerson sent an order demanding that Coroner Godwin attend CAP/CFC hearings held by Judge Peggy Walker every 2nd Tuesday if there is a child death. Judge Walker did not offer any alternative times for these scheduled hearings and did not take into account a standing medical treatment that Coroner Godwin could not change, on the same day. Coroner Godwin sent a Deputy to these hearings but that did not satisfy the DA’s office. [After reviewing the attendance records of 2015 and 2016 of the CAP/CFC, it is clear that Randy Daniel did NOT attend any of those meetings but instead sent a Deputy.] She has subsequently met with them and they are working together to set up Infant Fatality Prevention Workshops and trying to recalibrate their conflicting schedules.
Claims of efficiency by the previous Coroner are not borne out by the facts and documents discovered during our inquiry, i.e.; cremains had not been properly stored, records were incomplete or in error, Deputy Mark Alcarez signed off on death certificates before he was licensed to do so, office in violation of compliance of state laws, etc.
We found that the claims against Coroner Godwin of mismanagement are either untrue or over-exaggerated. There seems to be an all-out attack on Coroner Godwin and her department from supporters of the previous Coroner, Daniel.
The following factors cannot be ignored when considering the allegations against Coroner Godwin:
- The comments by Mr. Daniel that he intends to take his job back.
- Daniel’s cousin is the editor of the local Sentinel newspaper which has given damaging coverage to the current Coroner but favorable story slants to Randy Daniel.
- Daniel’s cousin, State Rep. J. Collins, pushed the SB154 Coroner’s bill calling for periodic review of the office through the House Legislature.
- His son-in-law (Mark Alcarez), in a scheme to lock down the position in the next election cycle, has filed a Declaration of Intent to run for the office of Coroner as a Democrat; and have Randy Daniel run as a Republican.
Additionally, lest we forget, during the election process in 2016, Randy Daniel offered a $2,000 bribe to Renee Godwin if she would drop out of the Coroner’s race. The link below is the news report on this issue that aired on television.
These factors suggest that the motivation for attacks against Coroner Godwin are political and not an objective examination of her performance.