Deal will pay S.J.’s new chief medical examiner nearly $5M
STOCKTON — Details of the four-year contract offered to prospective Chief Medical Examiner Michael Hunter reveal a unique arrangement that was conjured up by the man who is set to become the first leader of San Joaquin County’s newest department.
For one thing, the 52year-old Hunter will not become a county employee if the Board of Supervisors approves his contract at Tuesday’s meeting. For another, the contract is for an average of $1.2 million a year, a total of nearly $5 million for the life of the deal. And, formally, the contract is not with Hunter but rather his Forensic Doctors Group, of which he is sole proprietor. Forensic Doctors Group will receive $1.2 million a year, which will cover all county pathologist services, including paying pathologist subcontractors, for the life of the contract.
By contrast, according to figures provided in a staff report, the county paid nearly $905,000 for pathologist services in 2017-18, and is on pace to pay just more than $1 million for those services by the time the current fiscal year ends June 30.
County Administrator Monica Nino said Friday that the most important asset Hunter will bring to the job is his 17 years of experience as a chief medical examiner. Last year, when supervisors voted to establish a medical examiner’s office independent of the longstanding sheriff-coroner structure, private consultant Dr. Roger Mitchell said turning the job over to an experienced leader would be critical.
“That was some of the greatest feedback the board and I received as a result of Dr. Mitchell’s report, both formally and informally,” Nino said. “It was important to hire someone who understands the role of being a leader in county government.”
Hunter, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has spent the past four years as San Francisco’s chief medical examiner. He also is the host of a television show, “Autopsy: The Last Hours Of ...” that appears on REELZ, a cable network. The show delves into the mysterious aspects of celebrity deaths. Today, for example, separate episodes delve into the deaths of comedians John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley and Andy Kaufman.
San Francisco hired Hunter in early 2015 after his predecessor left behind a significant backlog of autopsies. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in late 2015 that the consensus among observers was that Hunter “dramatically improved the turnaround time for doing autopsies and determining the cause of death.”
Hunter wasn’t without critics during his time in San Francisco. According to the Chronicle, Jeff Adachi, the late public defender in San Francisco, questioned the standards and ethics of Hunter’s office, and said an examiner working under Hunter made “huge glaring errors” on one case.
The county’s need to examine how its death investigations are conducted arose in late 2017 when forensic pathologists Dr. Bennet Omalu and Dr. Susan Parson both resigned, alleging interference by then-Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore. In May 2018, supervisors voted to scrap the sheriff-coroner structure and create an independent Office of the Medical Examiner, which is required to be fully operational by July 1, 2020. Hunter’s first day, assuming his contract is approved, will be July 1 of this year.
According to the proposed contract, Hunter will be paid more than $985,000 in the first year of his contract. The county will have to decide at the end of each year whether or not to renew the contract for an additional year.
“It was a new opportunity and a creative idea,” Nino said of the arrangement with Hunter. “(Supervisors) really believe, and I do, too, that there’s great accountability with him being an independent contractor.”