The search for San Joaquin County’s first-ever chief medical examiner has taken a strange turn over the past week, with tense discussions that could lead to the possible censure of Supervisor Tom Patti.
A tense discussion took place during Tuesday’s meeting after the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to postpone a discussion about accusations that Patti, the board’s vice chairman, violated the board’s code of ethics when he spoke to Stockton Record reporter Roger Phillips in December 2018.
Patti himself made the motion to postpone the discussion — citing concerns about freedom of speech and claiming that Supervisor Chuck Winn added the item to the agenda at the last minute without first speaking to Patti — until County Counsel Mark Myles and Patti’s own private counsel can review the accusations more thoroughly.
“If the intent or interpretation of something I said was in question, why not ask me?” Patti said. “I am concerned that we have either a political play or a personal attack at hand, and these allegations, as they stand, are without justification or merit.”
In a letter to the board calling for the initial discussion, Winn accused Patti of violating the code of ethics in Phillips’ Dec. 6, 2018 Record article titled “Patti says he thinks Dr. (Bennet) Omalu is the best choice to lead new medical examiner’s office,” which covered the selection process for the newly-created chief medical examiner position.
Omalu is not currently a candidate for the position.
The board voted in April 2018 to eliminate the office of the coroner — a position formerly held by then-sheriff Steve Moore — by establishing the Office of the Medical Examiner independent of the Sheriff’s Office. Once hired, the medical examiner will be responsible for determining both the cause and manner of deaths.
The decision came after Omalu and Dr. Susan Parsons resigned from their positions as forensic pathologists with the coroner’s office in December 2017, claiming that Moore interfered with investigations by attempting to influence their decisions.
Sheriff Pat Withrow defeated Moore during the June 2018 primary election.
The Board of Supervisors interviewed a candidate for the chief medical examiner position during a closed session on Dec. 4, 2018, according to Winn’s letter, and also discussed the status of other potential candidates.
“Subsequent to the closed session, Supervisor Patti contacted Mr. Phillips to discuss the status of Dr. Omalu as an applicant for the position of Chief Medical Examiner,” Winn’s letter said.
Although Phillips’ Dec. 6 article included comments by Patti, Winn, Miller and Supervisor Miguel Villapudua, the board’s chairman, Winn’s letter claimed that only Patti’s comments violated the code of ethics, citing a Dec. 10 report by Myles.
“We clearly have the most qualified pathologist candidate or medical examiner candidate ... that we could ever dream of having,” Patti said in Phillips’ article.
Myles’ report claimed that Patti’s statement was misleading as Omalu was not a candidate at the time, and that Omalu’s concerns about the background check being conducted while Moore still served as sheriff caused him not to apply.
Phillips’ article also mentioned Patti “voicing concern Omalu is not being considered,” a statement that Myles said in his report was ambiguous as it could have been interpreted to mean Patti was concerned that Omalu had removed himself from the process, or that Patti was concerned the county was excluding Omalu.
“I contacted Mr. Phillips and he confirmed that it was expressed as a concern that the County was excluding Dr. Omalu,” Myles wrote in his report. “As understood and expressed by Mr. Phillips, this statement and sentiment is misleading.”
In his report, Myles cited Article I, Section 3.g of the code of ethics, which states “I will not make ... misleading statements for political advantage ...” and said that Patti’s statements could lead people to believe that Patti had either already made his choice or pre-judged the candidates, and that either case could affect the selection process.
“Article I, Section 2.c. (of the code of ethics) states ‘I do not give special treatment or consideration to any person or group beyond that available to any other individual,’” Myles wrote in his report. “Supervisor Patti’s public advocacy for Dr. Omalu when all the candidates have not been interviewed appears to be providing special consideration to Dr. Omalu that has not been provided to other candidates.”
Myles reviewed the comments made by other supervisors in the Dec. 6 article.
Villapudua also voiced support for Omalu in Phillips’ article, saying he believed Omalu “is probably in the top 10 in the United States,” and that Omalu and Withrow would work well together.
Myles’ review found that although Villapudua’s statements did not violate the code of ethics, they could have a “prejudicial impact on the recruitment process by discouraging other candidates who read the article and conclude that the decision has already been made,” according to Winn’s letter.
Miller said in Phillips’ article that she was “reserving judgment” until all interviews had been conducted, and Myles’ review found that her statements did not violate the ethics code, nor were they misleading or prejudicial.
Winn said in Phillips’ article that he would evaluate Omalu as a candidate if Omalu “... files an application and goes through the screening process and comes to the board,” Winn’s letter said.
“The County Counsel reviewed my comments and determined them not to violate our Code of Ethics, nor were they misleading or prejudicial to the recruitment process,” Winn wrote in his letter.
Supervisor Bob Elliott seconded Patti’s motion during Tuesday’s meeting after Myles said that he would amend his initial report after interviewing the supervisors for clarification about their comments in Phillips’ December 2018 article.
“If that’s the desire of this board, then I am happy to do that,” Myles said
After the board voted to postpone the discussion, Winn addressed Patti’s claims that he placed the discussion on Tuesday’s agenda at the last minute, citing Article 5, Section 2 of the code of ethics which requires supervisors to report violations to the board as soon as possible.
In addition to holding a public discussion at the next meeting after a violation is reported, Winn said the code could also require the board to censure Patti.
Winn put the discussion on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting because the Jan. 8 meeting was already too busy with the new chair and vice chair being elected, he said, adding that he felt postponing the discussion further would be a waste of time as Myles had already conducted a thorough review the first time.
“I think it’s perfectly clear that we have the opportunity and responsibility to have a discussion today. I think it’s unfortunate that the majority of the board feels that this needs to be dragged out and I don’t see any benefit to having this at a later time,” Winn said. “We’ll see what happens, but I think the rules have been followed and unfortunately, this delay will only aggravate the problem as opposed to resolve it.”
Miller also voiced concerns about Patti’s statements in the Dec. 6 article. All of the supervisors were specifically reminded about the need for confidentiality throughout the selection process for the chief medical examiner, she said.
“We have other interviews to conduct, and in light of Supervisor Patti’s statements right now, that seems to indicate that he believes it’s his right to say what he wants regardless of what the majority of the board has stated,” she said.
Patti responded to Miller’s comment, saying that he did not claim to speak for the board when he spoke with Phillips last month.
“I didn’t speak about anything that was said in confidentiality or in closed session, so my speech, my words, everything I said to the reporter was my personal feelings, and that was expressed and openly declared in that article,” Patti said. “I understand those concerns, and I would not betray what was said in closed session.”