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Dr. Stephen Cina meets with commissioners about medical examiner’s job

Thursday, July 12, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

The Florida forensic pathologist nominated to be chief of Cook County’s troubled morgue was in Chicago Wednesday, meeting privately with some commissioners concerned about everything from his consulting business to the $300,000 salary he negotiated to whether his work experience in smaller counties has prepared him for the big city.

On Tuesday, Board president Toni Preckwinkle announced that Dr. Stephen Cina, who has handled death investigations in Colorado, Wyoming and Florida, is her choice to take over operations at the county medical examiner’s office.

The West Side facility has been under fire since January, when the Sun-Times revealed bodies were piling up there and staff were complaining about the stench and bodily fluids pooling on the floor, triggering a state labor department investigation.

The mess has turned into a political football, with state budget cuts initially blamed but lousy management also faulted. Current chief medical examiner, Dr. Nancy Jones, also is stepping down at the end of the month, and her top deputy was forced to resign.

If he gets the job, Cina will have to navigate all that is left in his wake delicately, commissioners say, while turning around operations. On Wednesday, he walked through the back halls of the downtown county government building’s fifth floor — providing easy access to Preckwinkle’s executive office and most commissioners’ central offices — to avoid what some sources say was news media alerted to the visit.

Cina offered a few brief comments to the Sun-Times by phone about his nomination on Tuesday — saying he has some “big ideas” and “I am aware of the challenges, but it’s nothing insurmountable” — but deferred questions and interview requests to Preckwinkle’s office. Her media office denied those requests on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Like other commissioners, Peter N. Silverstri described his talk with Cina as a quick “meet and greet” but the suburban Republican also got a chance to ask the nominee whether he’s ready for the big city after smaller-town experiences. Currently, Cina serves as the associate medical director of the University of Miami Tissue Bank, and before that he served as a deputy chief medical examiner in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“I said, ‘You’ve been in Florida, you’ve been in Colorado — are you comfortable coming to work for a government of this size, and in light of the problems of the last year?’,” Silvestri said.

“He expressed confidence, of course, that he could. But I’m not convinced — not because of him, but because I have a lack of information. He has an impressive resume,” Silvestri said.

He said that in just a few minutes, it is tough to have an in-depth conversation about his experience and aspirations for the job. Silvestri said he will be asking for more details on his work background and any other information he needs before commissioners hold a confirmation hearing and vote on July 24.

As part of the vetting process, the county conducted criminal background check on Cina, which turned up no convictions, said county spokeswoman Mary Paleologos. He also passed a drug screening and physical exam, she said.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin said in the few minutes he spoke with Cina, he was able to ask him about his plans to continue working eight hours a week as a forensic pathology consultant for high-profile lawsuits — earning a whopping $5,000 a day, plus expenses, as Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg reported.

“I was concerned that he was going to be using our facilities to conduct autopsies, but he’s not going to do that,” Suffredin said. “He’s reviewing the work of other forensic pathologists, so he’s reading over their work, and he says it can be done on planes, trains and automobiles” and outside the confines of his Cook County job.

Robert Steele, a West Side Democrat, said a scheduling snafu meant he could not get together with Cina, but he plans to have a heart-to-heart about that.

“It’s a full-time job — plus. We know that already from what we know about medical examiners being called in day and night,” Steele said, stressing that he’s not bashing the candidate. “So how do you have time to take on these official roles in your consulting business?”

While Preckwinkle is confident she has, at minimum, the nine votes needed to confirm the appointment, several commissioners want more information before they’re willing to make a firm commitment.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, a Northwest Side Democrat, is among them: “I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Cina for 15 minutes today, I wouldn’t hire someone to work in my office in such a small amount of time, much less one of the highest paid officials in the county.”

While Cina’s resume shows he is qualified, Fritchey said, without a thorough understanding of his work history and any other background information, he can’t throw his support behind Cina.

Fritchey has also raised concerns about Cina negotiating a $300,000 salary — 30 percent more than the current ME annual pay — and a guarantee that he can add three more doctors to the staff.

From the conversation, “I have the impression Dr. Cina believes that the problems in the ME’s office can be solved simply through increasing the budget and personnel. I’m not so sure I agree with him,” Fritchey said.

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