25 Investigates: Medical Examiner’s Office ignores request to turn over emails

BOSTON — 25 Investigates has reported extensively on the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) and the long wait-times families seeking autopsy reports endure. Back in April, we received a couple anonymous tips that contained detailed allegations about an administrator mentioned in our previous reporting.

One tip claimed internal emails from specific dates would expose unethical behavior by that administrator. A 25 Investigates producer sought to immediately verify the allegations and submitted a public records request to the OCME on April 27.

The request asked for date-specific emails sent and received on state-issued servers and state-issued computers. We also asked for a “copy of the office’s sexual harassment policy and policies related to gifts and gratuities.”

Thirteen weeks, or 92 days, later, we are still waiting for those public records.

>>>MORE FROM 25 INVESTIGATES

Initially, the OCME did acknowledge 25 Investigates’ request and even requested an extension to produce the documents, which our team agreed to. On May 12, the lawyer for the OCME told our investigative producer that the office was “reviewing and redacting the records for production” and was hoping to have them “finalized by May 21.”

That was the last communication we’ve had with the office about the request. On several occasions since then, 25 Investigates attempted to get an update from the lawyer for the OCME, but our emails went unanswered.

Given the lack of response by the OCME, we contacted the Secretary of State’s Public Records Division on June 1 and asked for them to intercede on our behalf. The agency, which is headed by Secretary William Galvin, ensures that state agencies are complying with public records laws.

Galvin’s office has since sent two emails and a letter compelling the OCME to respond to our request. Those emails have also gone unanswered.

“Transparency leads to accountability. That’s the value of the public records law,” said Deirdre Cummings, the legislative director at MASSPIRG, a government accountability and consumer advocacy group.

“If an agency isn’t complying with it, it sends the message that, one, they don’t care about the taxpayer and, two, that there may be something they’re trying to hide.”

According to the Massachusetts Public Records Law guide on the Secretary of State’s website, “…emails made or received in an individual’s capacity as a government employee, must be maintained and kept in a manner that allows access by the general public, as they are subject to mandatory disclosure upon request.”

>>>MORE: 25 Investigates: Passport backlog, mailing delays force many to cancel summer travel plans

The Medical Examiner’s Office is part of Governor Charlie Baker’s administration. Baker appointed Dr. Mindy Hull as the state’s chief medical examiner in 2017.

Investigative reporter Ted Daniel recently asked Gov. Baker about the blatant violation of the public records law. The governor said that while he was not aware of the nature of our request he would “look into” for us and reminded us that some records may be exempt.

“I don’t know anything about this particular case but there are circumstances and situations in which public records aren’t turned over because we’re told by, you know, a law enforcement agency or some other investigating entity, that they don’t want those records turned over until they complete their investigation,” he said.

The law states that public records should be produced within 10 business days unless the record keeper provides a legal reason to withhold them or asks for an extension. In this case, the OCME hasn’t offered a justification for withholding the documents from the public.

In fact, they told 25 Investigates they had the records before they stopped communicating with us. In its latest communication, Secretary Galvin’s Office told the OCME his office may refer this case to the Attorney General’s for enforcement of the records law.