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Crisis management
Romney acts — finally — to reform and fund the broken state medical examiner’s office. Also, the price of disloyalty in Bush’s White House, and the SJC should stick to its holding on gay marriage.

A PUBLIC EXCHANGE of words between Governor Mitt Romney and the office of Senate president Robert Travaglini this week shows that there’s nothing like a crisis to inspire elected officials to act — and to blame each other.

According to an account by the State House News Service, Romney said he will propose to increase spending on the embattled state medical examiner’s office next year by $2.1 million, or 60 percent. The Republican governor couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Democratic-controlled legislature, noting that spending on the medical examiner’s office has not risen since 1988. "Can you imagine, we’ve had flat funding for 16 years," Romney said. "An office like that can’t perform its function as it needs to."

That brought a rapid response from Ann Dufresne, Travaglini’s spokeswoman, who said that Romney last year rejected a legislative proposal to create a Department of Forensic Sciences, which would have provided more money and increased oversight.

One thing is for sure: the money — and tough reform measures — are desperately needed. Starting last fall, the city’s dailies have published story after story documenting an operation in total disarray. The wrong set of eyeballs from a dead baby was reportedly sent out for testing. A Quincy man’s heart was lost. A Brockton man’s brain was discarded. DNA testing in the case of Sarah Pryor, a nine-year-old murder victim, may have been delayed because an employee kept a section of her skull in his desk for nearly two years. Most notoriously, the medical examiner’s office recently misidentified the victim in a Gloucester house fire, causing needless pain for two families.

The chief medical examiner, Dr. Richard Evans, is also reportedly under investigation by the State Ethics Commission for allegedly receiving free dental care from one of his employees, and by the FBI on charges that his office mishandled more than $1 million in grant money.

The governor deserves credit for taking steps to replace Evans, as well as to increase funding to a level needed to ensure that the office can actually function. But, as news reports revealed Wednesday morning, he appointed two pathologists to the commission charged with finding a replacement for Evans who aren’t qualified to sit on the commission. The two in question are board-certified pathologists, not forensic pathologists. Both can do autopsies; only the latter, however, are qualified to do autopsies on homicide victims and trained to detect suspicious deaths. By intentionally hiding the fact that he had appointed two people who lack the proper certification to serve on the commission, Romney has damaged the commission’s credibility. It is difficult to fathom the arrogance of a politician who feels comfortable publicly slamming his predecessors and the legislature for neglecting the medical examiner’s office even as he has damaged the integrity of the very commission charged with cleaning up the current mess. Romney’s "I know better" attitude is truly staggering. And, for the record, the attitude of retired Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Herbert P. Wilkins, who sits on the commission — and who told the Boston Globe, "I don’t know if anyone is worried" about the two appointees who lack proper qualification — is unbecoming to a person of his stature.

The medical examiner’s office is an embarrassment to the Commonwealth. It needs strong leadership and adequate funding. It’s bad enough that it takes a crisis (or two or three) to get state government to act. But what Romney has done is even worse.

IT WAS SOMEHOW mordantly appropriate when the White House said it would investigate former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill to determine whether he used any classified documents while helping author Ron Suskind. O’Neill is the principal source for Suskind’s new book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill. In interviews on CBS News’s 60 Minutes and in this week’s Time magazine, O’Neill and Suskind painted a disturbing picture of a disengaged president surrounded by ideologues who were pushing for war with Iraq within days of Bush’s inauguration, and for tax cuts for the rich that even Bush himself questioned — before meekly acquiescing to Vice-President Dick Cheney and chief political adviser Karl Rove.

As the journalist Joshua Micah Marshall observed on his weblog, Talkingpointsmemo.com, it took 74 days for the Bush administration to announce that it would investigate the leak that outed the covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, and just one to begin its probe of O’Neill.

Of course, fingering the leakers in the case of Plame — the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who helped expose the White House’s lies about Niger yellowcake uranium — could prove highly embarrassing to the friends of George W. Bush. By contrast, the investigation of O’Neill is intended to intimidate one of Bush’s adversaries.

What got the White House’s attention was O’Neill and Suskind’s claim that The Price of Loyalty was informed by some 19,000 documents that were made available to O’Neill after Cheney ordered him to resign. On NBC’s Today show on Tuesday, O’Neill insisted that he obtained the documents through established procedures, and that they were vetted by the Treasury Department’s general counsel to make sure that none was classified.

O’Neill seemed to backtrack on his remarks about Iraq, saying he accepted the explanation that the White House was merely engaged in long-range planning that had actually begun during the Clinton presidency. And, perhaps as a sign of contrition for having told the truth, he said he would "probably" vote for Bush this November.

Nevertheless, the tale of the two investigations offers fascinating insight into the priorities of the Bush White House. Plame’s exposure, planted with syndicated columnist Robert Novak, may have endangered intelligence operations and even lives; yet the Bushies dragged their heels for months before taking action.

O’Neill’s revelations are merely a political embarrassment. Which makes them, apparently, an unforgivable sin.

THE DEADLINE has come and gone for those who wish to file briefs with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on the question of whether civil unions would satisfy the standard the court established last November in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health — which found that banning same-sex couples from civil marriage violates the state constitution. The court gave the legislature 180 days to "take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion." The majority also ruled that after that 180-day period had elapsed, same-sex couples would be allowed to marry in Massachusetts.

The civil-unions law in question, Senate Bill 2175, was passed last month by the state Senate, which subsequently submitted a copy of the bill to the SJC for an advisory opinion on whether it would pass constitutional muster. It all sounds very straightforward. Except it’s not. Why is the court accepting amicus curiae briefs on a question that’s already answered in the Goodridge ruling? Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe notes in his SJC brief that the answer to the Senate’s question can be found in the Goodridge opinion itself: "Time and again throughout its opinion, the SJC emphasizes its holding that Massachusetts must offer same-sex couples access to the civil institution of marriage on the same terms and conditions as those enjoyed by opposite-sex couples."

Could it be that there is at least one justice in the majority who would be open to the separate-but-equal civil-unions compromise? As with other matters involving pressure from the legislature, will the court cave? We’ll know soon enough.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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