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Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Coroner must pay $16,550 to bureau

Mikel says fines may be appealed

Express Staff Writer

Following an 11-month court proceeding, Blaine County Coroner Russell D. Mikel was ordered this month to pay $16,550 in fines for five instances in which he failed to complete supplemental death certificates within a predetermined time frame.

Russell Mikel, Blaine County coroner

Visiting 5th District Judge Barry Wood handed down the 14-page decision Monday, April 12. Wood ruled that Mikel failed to exhaust his options for administrative appeal with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and therefore did not have standing for a judicial review.

Mikel said Tuesday, April 27, he plans to appeal the decision.

In his decision, Wood was clear.

"Mr. Mikel failed to exhaust his administrative remedies; no exceptions to this requirement apply in this case; and therefore Mr. Mikel is not entitled to declaratory relief nor judicial review; Mr Mikel is simply time barred," Wood wrote.

In an effort to resolve the five cases involving unfinished death certificates in Blaine County, the state of Idaho filed the lawsuit in June 2003 against the six-term incumbent coroner. The lawsuit initially sought $7,880 in fines the Department of Health and Welfare imposed on Mikel in the absence of the completed documentation.

For each day Mikel failed to complete the task beyond May 30, the date the aforementioned total was established, fines mounted at $175 per day.

"Mr. Mikel never filed a request for a hearing nor did he take any action whatsoever. Thus, the agency action became final when Mr. Mikel failed to appeal," Wood wrote. "The state views this case as essentially a collection action, while the coroner seeks to go back and attack the underlying administrative process."

For each of the five cases in question, Mikel filed death certificates within the time frame required. However, on each of those certificates, he wrote that the information regarding the cause of death was "pending by reason of ongoing investigation."

The Department of Health and Welfare requested that Mikel submit supplemental certificates within 15 days of the filing of the death certificates.

"Mr. Mikel failed to do so," Wood wrote.

The department sent letters for each of the five certificates to the coroner that informed him that fines had been imposed for failing to submit the documents. The letters informed him that he had 35 days to appeal the decision by requesting a hearing.

"At no time did Mr. Mikel appeal the decision," Wood wrote.

In an interview this week, Mikel declined to elaborate about the case other than to say he planned to appeal the decision. In June, however, he said he handled the cases just as he has since he was first elected in 1984.

A typical death investigation could take as many as 30 days to complete, he pointed out. Some routine examinations can take six to eight weeks, while the results of one autopsy took seven months to come back. Further, he said, the cases he was pressed to decide were not routine.

Alfonso Ceja died Aug. 16, 2001. According to a Sept. 30 affidavit signed by Mikel, Ceja was a baby who died at birth at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center under a physician’s care. Mikel contended that Dr. Mariel Hanks, the baby’s doctor, should have had complete oversight over the death certificate.

Harold Simon died Oct. 22, 2002, in the southern-most tip of Blaine County. The body was released to the Rupert Funeral Home for shipment out of Idaho for burial before there could be a post-mortem examination.

"The body should not have been shipped without my signature," Mikel wrote. "The family then insisted that I sign the certificate as a heart-related death but were unwilling to furnish any sources of medical records until early this year. The records they finally provided did not support the patient having cardiac disease."

Anthony Purcell and David Wells both died July 3, 2002. The two men were involved in a double shooting in Hailey.

"The scene and evidence was delegated to the Idaho State Police Crime Lab," Mikel wrote. As of July 1, 2003, the crime lab had not yet run the requested tests or furnished any report about its investigation. Though Mikel did not complete the supplemental death certificate to his own satisfaction, the Department of Health and Welfare accepted the assessment as satisfactory.

"I have no manner or means of knowing why," he wrote.

Robert Schmertz died July 5, 2002.

"This patient died an unattended death in Hailey of apparent natural causes without a specific cause readily apparent," Mikel wrote.

Though the Magic Valley Regional Medical Center conducted an autopsy, Mikel said he was never furnished with a copy.


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