Monkey Spankings at the Morgue: King County Finds No Fault in Sperm Donations by Medical Examiner Staff

A KCME workbench
Was it good government practice for morgue staffers to provide the King County medical examiner with samples of their sperm at $20 a pop? The voluntary ejaculations were a bit unseemly, a new county investigations report reveals, but at least the self-abuse wasn't an abuse of authority.

If it all seems a little strange, keep in mind this is the morgue that held an office contest awarding $10 for the most grisly death-scene photos; where a boss showed up at work wearing a bulletproof vest; and where someone stole the remains of a newborn baby from the body cooler.

A whistle-blower had raised the question of Chief Medical Examiner Richard Harruff's sperm-gathering in a 2007 complaint, but it wasn't until two weeks ago that the county Ombudsman's Office issued its report, along with findings on whether or not the ME's office had properly handled brain tissue and fetal remains.

The morgue, located in a corner of Harborview Medical Center on Pill Hill, has long been a controversial workplace where employees have sued over sexual harassment and unusual practices. The new ombudsman's report, issued January 29, looked into some of those issues, first raised in a 16-page complaint filed in August, 2007 by former ME staffer Robinette Struckel.

The sperm-donation practice was at the top of her list. It seemed, at the least she said, inappropriate to ask fellow workers to masturbate--perhaps on county time--and ejaculate into a specimen catcher in return for a cash award from the boss.

But the office of ombudsman Amy Calderwood determined no harm was done.

"KCMEO occasionally tests for the presence of semen in criminal cases," the report notes. "A control sample of semen is used to ensure the chemical stain the agency uses to prepare the semen for analysis is functioning properly." To obtain the control samples, Harruff would make a general announcement to employees for samples and offer $20 of his own money to the willing, the report states. Harruff explained "that this method of obtaining samples was significantly less expensive than ordering them through a medical supply company."

The collection was voluntary and the process designed so that samples could be submitted anonymously, the ombudsman determined. While it's understandable "how the semen procurement practice appeared to be inappropriate and could have been misinterpreted," the report concludes, "the only portion of the county's improper governmental action definition that could reasonably relate to this allegation is 'abuse of authority,'" and none was found. The sperm-giving was discontinued after Struckel complained, and the ME now buys samples from a medical supply company.

No governmental rule or law violations were found, as well, in the ME's handling of brains turned over to a contractor for off-site disposal. And the ombudsman determined there was no violation when the morgue placed a deceased fetus in a bag with organs removed from the deceased mother, shipping all the remains to a funeral home.

Complaint-maker Struckel resigned from the ME's office after claiming she was being harassed by a fellow worker. Internal conflicts at the morgue had reached the point that an outside workplace investigator had to be brought in, at a cost of $8,225, to interview at least two dozen ME employees.

It didn't sound like a happy workplace. Employees used such terms as "drama queen," "bitchy," "anal retentive" and "control freak" to describe other workers. Said one, referring to a boss: "If his mouth is moving, he's lying."

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