Former Adams County Coroner James Hibbard was term-limited out of a job last year, but folks in that county are still paying for the strange way he ran his office. County officials have agreed to shell out $650,000 to settle claims by a forensic pathologist who claimed Hibbard retaliated against him for protesting sexual harassment of female employees -- the last in a string of lawsuits over bad behavior in and out of the autopsy suite that's cost taxpayers in excess of a million dollars.
As detailed in my 2009 feature "The Body Shop," Hibbard's office was plagued by high turnover, strained relationships with law enforcement agencies and blunders in death investigations. Under Colorado law, elected coroners aren't required to have a medical background -- and Hibbard, a former sheriff's deputy who lacked even a bachelor's degree, clashed repeatedly with Dr. Michael Arnall, the forensic pathologist who performed autopsies for his office.
When several female employees complained to Arnall about "neck rubs" and other unwanted attentions from then-chief deputy coroner Mark Chavez, Arnall went to Hibbard and urged him to put a stop to it. An investigation ensued, and Chavez resigned. But several employees say Hibbard then began retaliating against Arnall and the women who'd complained of harassment. Hibbard prohibited his death investigators from speaking directly to Arnall and eventually fired him, after a confrontation over whether Hibbard was using the autopsy suite cameras to spy on female employees and study their cleavage.
"Morale in that office was absolutely at rock bottom," says David Lane, attorney for Arnall and several of the women.
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In addition to Arnall's $650,000 settlement, the county has also paid hefty sums to Emma Hall ($350,000), Monica Broncucia-Jordan ($275,000), Sherronda Appleberry ($275,000) and Amy Aragon ($85,000), all of whom were fired by Hibbard or left after enduring some form of alleged harassment. Under the terms of the county's insurance coverage, $1,085,000 of those settlements came directly from county funds, with the insuror paying the remaining $550,000, according to the county attorney's office.
Broncucia-Jordan is now the coroner in Adams County, with Appleberry as her chief deputy; Arnall is once again the county's go-to pathologist.
Arnall says he's pleased to have the case resolved at last. While the settlement is a substantial one, "vindication is perhaps the most important issue," he says.
More from our News archive: "Lora Thomas: Ethics complaint highlights bitter feud between coroner and sheriff."