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Dead heat: A lively race for Arapahoe County coroner highlights some sickly politics

The oddly popular county coroner races in Colorado have led to some wild contests this year. But for real drama, consider the choice Arapahoe County voters are facing in the slugfest between veteran incumbent Dr. Mike Dobersen and attorney Jay Ledbetter.

Dobersen has been the county coroner for seventeen years. He's also a widely respected forensic pathologist; most elected coroners have little or no medical training and have to hire an FP to perform autopsies. But since his last race, Dobersen has changed his party affiliation, reflecting his own political preference as well as the shifting demographics of the county. "When I first got here, they told me if I wanted the job I had to be a Republican," he told Westwordin 2009. "I'm a registered Democrat now."

The switch prompted the local GOP to field its own candidate. A former prosecutor, Ledbetter claims to have conducted crime-scene investigations in "hundreds of cases" — and alludes to a mysterious career as a top-secret military commando, as well. And he insists that he can trim costs substantially in the coroner's office through superior managerial skills and by eliminating some of the "cleverly hidden" costs of Dobersen's operation. "The coroner's office is a legal function, frankly — to determine the cause and manner of death," Ledbetter says. "It uses medical techniques to get at that legal function, but it's being performed by people who have no legal training."

Dobersen says his opponent is trying to politicize a job that needs to be above politics. "This is a physician's office," he says. "My patients, unfortunately, are deceased, but I am an advocate of the person who died. It doesn't matter who's a Republican and who's a Democrat."

Ledbetter disagrees: "I'm a Republican, and I'm tied to a lean government, a smaller budget. Here's a guy who's interested in smaller government, who's going to be transparent. I will not be practicing law on the side, trust me. And you won't have to bring in another doctor to do my work while I'm gallivanting around the country doing other autopsies."

That last remark is a shot at the fact that Dobersen has hired a second pathologist, Kelly Lear-Kaul, who also performs autopsies. Together the two took jurisdiction of 462 deaths in the county in 2008 and conducted 452 examinations. They also do some work for other counties, at around $1,500 an autopsy, as well as "private" autopsies at the request of families, which can cost as much as $3,000. Dobersen estimates that he and Lear-Kaul do around a hundred outside autopsies a year.

Ledbetter suggests that all that extra work and income indicates that the county could do just fine with one forensic pathologist. "It takes an hour and a half or a couple hours, average, to do an autopsy," he says. "It wouldn't be difficult for a pathologist to do four autopsies a day. Clearly, we have two doctors in an office that can perform three times as many autopsies as are necessary in Arapahoe County."

Dobersen thinks Ledbetter's figures show a lack of understanding of his profession. "He just doesn't know what he's talking about," he says. "Some autopsies take as long as six hours."

While it might be technically possible for one pathologist to perform 450 autopsies a year, he adds, "this office would never get certified by the National Association of Medical Examiners." NAME recommends that pathologists have a workload of no more than 250 cases a year. With the outside work, Dobersen is slightly exceeding that figure, but he notes that it's done with the blessing of the county commissioners.

"There are only sixteen forensic pathologists in the state," he says. "We're asked to do autopsies for families or because someone is out of town. Just about all of us do these cases. The county makes money, and so do I."

Would the county save money with a non-FP coroner who contracts the work to other pathologists? Dobersen doubts it. Although the salaries for himself and Lear-Kaul amount to about $400,000, that also includes extensive time dealing with court appearances and other matters. Five hundred autopsies a year at the going rate of $1,500 each works out to $750,000. "If you bid out what we do on the open market, it would come to a million dollars," he says.

Ledbetter isn't impressed by Dobersen's numbers. "I've run companies," he points out. "I can run this office and save money doing it. I think I know why he hired the other doc: He's already announced his retirement. He's got his kids in college, he's ready to close it up. Even if you elect him, you're not going to get him."

Not true, Dobersen replies. He was contemplating retirement eighteen months ago, but was persuaded by law enforcement and attorneys to seek one more term. "Anyone who would run for public office only to turn it over to somebody else is an idiot," he says. "I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't planning to serve the term."

While Ledbetter stresses his legal training, most of his practice at present seems to be managing a "multimillion-dollar family trust." But he also says he does "a lot of pro bono work."

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