- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s former medical examiner had the authority to revoke the appointment of an associate who he complained continually ignored a directive not to perform autopsies on infants, state officials said.

Chief Medical Examiner Gary Dale appointed Thomas Bennett as an associate in 1998, but due to questionable findings in his previous role as state medical examiner in Iowa, Dale told Bennett not to handle infant autopsies.

Dale made the request numerous times over the years, according to court documents. However Bennett - as a contract worker - continued to do infant autopsies for eastern Montana coroners, the Missoulian reported. Dale complained that the Justice Department wouldn’t fund what he believed was the solution - a state-run autopsy facility in Billings.

Spokesmen for Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox both told The Associated Press on Monday that Dale could have eliminated the conflict by revoking Bennett’s appointment.

“At any point since 1998, Dr. Dale could have revoked Dr. Bennett’s appointment without notice or cause,” said John Barnes, a spokesman for Fox. “Without the ‘associate medical examiner’ designation, Dr. Bennett would have been unable to perform autopsies for county attorneys as a state medical examiner.”

Dave Parker, a spokesman for Bullock, made the same argument, but added that “Bennett’s work in Montana was not questioned. In fact, county coroners and prosecutors relied on and trusted Dr. Bennett’s work. That’s why they retained his services over the years.”

Based on that, Bullock, who was attorney general from 2009-2012, “did not feel it was appropriate to go over Dr. Dale’s head, directing him to rescind Dr. Bennett’s appointment,” Parker said. The attorney general appoints the state medical examiner.

Dr. Walter Kemp was named to succeed Dale in April. Kemp resigned effective July 1, citing his professional code of ethics and working conditions that he termed “unworkable,” the Missoulian reported. He said he had been required to re-appoint Bennett.

Kemp could have refused to re-appoint him, Barnes said.

Besides Dale and Kemp, Bennett was the only other forensic pathologist in the state, Parker noted.

“The county coroners communicated directly with Dr. Bennett to request his services and did not ask the medical examiner for permission to use him, nor were they required to, as they are independently elected officials,” Parker told the Missoulian.

Earlier this month, Fox announced plans to restructure the state medical examiner’s office to make the Billings medical examiner an assistant, rather than an associate. As a state employee, the assistant would be required to follow directives from the head medical examiner.

The state notified Bennett his appointment as associate medical examiner would end on July 1. He has declined comment.

The state has hired a new medical examiner who will begin work in August. She will appoint the two assistants, one to work in Missoula and the other in Billings.

___

Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann contributed to this story.


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