ANDERSON — Three months after Dr. Troy Abbott took office in January as Madison County’s new coroner, he received a $207.15 invoice for cosmetics and other products that might be used to prepare a body for viewing.
The coroner’s office, according to Abbott, has no use for such products. But funeral homes do.
Abbott accuses the Dunnichay family, which ran the coroner’s office for almost 30 years, of mixing Dunnichay Funeral Home business with Madison County coroner business, of misusing the county’s tax-exempt status and of generally shoddy and questionable office management practices.
“It just seems like they have laundered things through the coroner’s office for their funeral home,” Abbott said.
In the November election, Abbott defeated the sitting coroner, Danielle Noone.
She is a daughter of Ned and Marian Dunnichay, both former Madison County coroners. Noone replaced her mother as coroner in 2018 after Marian was elected as Pipe Creek Township trustee. Ned Dunnichay’s father, Jerry Dunnichay, also previously served as coroner.
Abbott discovered another cosmetics invoice, from 2018 for $291 purchased under the coroner’s account and paid for by Madison County. When The Herald Bulletin showed Ned Dunnichay a copy of the invoice, he said the items were “inadvertently billed to the county.”
Dunnichay expressed surprise that a cosmetics invoice was received by the coroner’s office after Abbott took office.
“I don’t know how that is possible,” Dunnichay said. “They don’t just send invoices out to the coroner’s office when it is for the funeral home. The funeral home was not aware of this situation, and is, of course, reimbursing the county at this time.”
Dunnichay acknowledged that a supply company also incorrectly coded funeral home supplies purchased under the Madison County Coroner’s office, making them tax-exempt. The funeral home paid the state sales tax of $343.55 in August when it was brought to Dunnichay’s attention by The Herald Bulletin, according to Ned Dunnichay.
Madison County Auditor Rick Gardner confirmed that Dunnichay also sent a check to the county in August to reimburse $291 for a funeral home expense the county paid in 2018.
Dunnichay insists, and Gardner confirms, that no other funeral home supplies were ever charged to the coroner’s account with the county.
The county auditor said the $291 claim submitted by Dunnichay and paid for by the county was probably a fluke and nothing more.
“(Ned Dunnichay) paid it back, and that is the end of it for me,” Gardner said.
According to Dunnichay, his family actually saved the county money during the years the family ran the coroner’s office when their Elwood funeral home provided rent-free coroner office space.
The county, however, continued to maintain a morgue office that went unused.
‘THEY JUST THINK I’M TROUBLE’
After Abbott became county coroner in January, he was informed by county officials, he says, that the office had $100,000 in unpaid invoices for autopsies and other expenses dating to 2017. Abbott discovered a host of other issues as well, he said.
Abbott said the approximately $100,000 in invoices were for unpaid autopsy and toxicology fees dating back to 2018 and for lab and X-ray fees at St. Vincent Anderson Hospital as far back as 2017.
“There were several incidental things that were paid as well from my budget without my authorization,” Abbott said. “There were bills that were submitted previously but were not paid due to no additional funds in that account.
“Unfortunately, there was no apparent transfer-of-funds request that was ever submitted, and the invoices were paid when 2021 funds hit those accounts. I understand that one or two months could roll over to the next calendar year, but the majority of the stuff was over three years old.”
Abbott wrote a letter to county officials just two days into his four-year term. In it, he cited several other problems left by Noone, including missing equipment, non-operational equipment and security issues.
He also found outdated coroner office stationery listing a phone number for someone named Dillion.
“I have no record of anyone for the Madison County Coroner’s office listed under that name,” Abbott wrote in a letter to county commissioners and the human resources office.
“I’m concerned a non-government employee is allowed to answer a confidential line where criminal investigations are ongoing and this individual is privileged to confidential information.”
Abbott says he received no response.
Three months later, the new coroner brought the cosmetics bill to the attention of county officials. Again, Abbott says, he received no response.
Other problems he inherited as coroner, according to Abbott, include four different addresses listed for the coroner’s office, unsafe vehicles with high mileage, no phone, no computer and minimal supplies for his deputies.
Abbott says he attempted to seek answers from the deputy coroners he kept on staff and from Gardner in the county auditor’s office. Those attempts, he says, only created more questions.
“They aren’t going to do anything,” Abbott said of Gardner and county council. “They just think I’m trouble. This has been going on for a really long period of time.”
Now, nine months after taking office and after sending dozens of letters to county and state officials, Abbott says he feels disheartened, frustrated and disappointed by local government leadership.
‘NOTHING BUT A NIGHTMARE’
Gardner, however, says Abbott is out of his element, making false claims and demands of the coroner’s office that the county can’t fulfill.
“I’ll be frank with you,” Gardner said in August. “The current coroner has been nothing but a nightmare for the last seven months.”
Gardner has high praise for the Dunnichay family. He says they never caused problems, but he acknowledges that the Dunnichays were “a little sloppy from time to time, not unlike the current coroner.”
Abbott continually asks for more money from the county for unneeded items such as personal vehicles and pay increases, according to the auditor.
Gardner acknowledges that the county council did not give previous coroners enough money for autopsies, which created a backlog of unpaid bills.
“That’s nothing they could do anything about,” Gardner said of the Dunnichays and Noone.
Gardner pointed to Abbott’s complaints about phone bills and phone usage as examples of his lack of understanding about coroner office finances.
“There was a balance that was left at the end of the year,” Gardner explained. “It is normal for an outgoing office holder to have filed claims at the end of the year paid out of the future year’s budget.”
But Abbott doesn’t accept that answer.
“That’s why I was ticked off,” he said. “If you go back to their old budget, they had money they could have transferred from one fund to another fund to pay for these things.
“They didn’t have to spend $1,200 more of my money when I’m trying to get up and running. Why didn’t they just pay it out of that year? Why pay it out of my money?”
Abbott has also filed a complaint with the Indiana State Board of Accounts.
Debbie Gibson, director of audit services for the state board of accounts, told The Herald Bulletin in late August that the agency was not currently investigating the coroner’s office and declined to say whether the board had received any complaints about the office.
But speaking generally, Gibson said the state would be interested in investigating evidence of falsified time cards or misappropriations of funds.
Noone, Abbott’s predecessor in office, said it seems that Abbott is on a mission to discredit county coroners who preceded him.
“He’s going back to things that are years before I was in office,” Noone said. “He’s digging. Get into office and make change ... that’s what he was campaigning on.”
Gardner said Abbott is not an investigator and should stop looking into what happened before he took office. Abbott rubs him the wrong way, Gardner said, and is looking for trouble.
“I think he is dishonest, if you want to know the truth,” Gardner said of Abbott. “I don’t know how else to say it.”
‘BEHIND THE EIGHT-BALL AGAIN’
Marian Dunnichay, who served as Madison County coroner from 1996 to 2004, and Abbott have expressed similar frustrations and complaints about the funding and resources allocated to the coroner’s office by county commissioners.
“We were budgeted so much money, and every year I would ask for more. But we would be given whatever, and it was never enough,” Marian Dunnichay said.
The coroner’s office frequently had to request additional funding from the commissioners for autopsies and had “to jump through hoops.”
Marian Dunnichay says autopsy claims were turned in and she assumed they were paid. She later discovered some of the invoices were carried over to Abbott’s budget.
“It wasn’t like we were being irresponsible,” Marian Dunnichay said. “We thought they were being paid, and they weren’t. We don’t deny that it happened, and when you look at why it happened, it makes sense.”
The coroner’s office, she says, had a constant cycle of services performed, claims submitted, requests for additional funding and then new expenses incurred.
“We would be behind the eight-ball again, and we could never get caught up,” Marian Dunnichay said.
The lack of funding required coroner’s office personnel to rely on personal phones and computer equipment to complete their work, according to the former coroner. One of the coroner’s office vehicles broke down, she added.
“It ran good for a while and then we started having issues with it,” Marian Dunnichay said of the used vehicle, given to her department by another agency. “The sad thing is we were grateful. We were thankful that we got something.”
Marian Dunnichay encouraged Abbott to pull old invoices and claims to see how tightly she ran the coroner’s office.
‘IT’S THE DUMBEST THING’
Abbott says he has requested those old invoices and claims, as well as copies of employee time sheets, to do exactly as Marian Dunnichay suggested. But he has not received them, he says.
“(Gardner) refuses to give them to me,” Abbott said. “I’ve been asking since day one, ‘How are we going to do this, because we are going to run out of money for these employees?’”
Abbott says his county department has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. His deputies are not only exposed to the virus daily, they are often in direct contact with people who have died from the coronavirus.
Despite the lack of funding, morgue, equipment and resources, Abbott says, he was elected by the residents of Madison County to do the job and he is determined to do just that.
“I am frustrated that no one seems to think the coroner’s office is critical to Madison County,” Abbott wrote in an email to human resources and the county’s attorney in April.
One of his concerns is trying to comply with state and federal employment guidelines for his deputies.
Abbott says Katherine Callahan, chief deputy coroner, is listed as exempt, but making only $10.21 an hour, not the mandated $683 per week as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act for an exempt employee.
The county human resources department lists his deputies as full-time, but the auditor’s office insists the deputies are only part time, according to Abbott.
Regardless of their employment classification, Abbott says, his deputies are not adequately reimbursed and make only $9.45 an hour — less than what some part-time employees make at fast food restaurants.
“They want them to do full-time work, but they only want to pay for part time,” Abbott said. “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
‘HOW DO YOU CLEAN THIS UP?’
Abbott was told by deputies who worked for the former coroner that they never filled out work time cards, he said. At least one of the deputies told Abbott that she was unaware of her hourly pay rate, according to the coroner.
“I understand in the past, the previous administration did not ask for much,” Abbott wrote in his email to human resources and the county’s attorney. “But I don’t think this followed the wages and fair labor standards act.”
Marian Dunnichay admits her deputies signed blank time sheets and that she photocopied them before filling in the hours.
That is just one of many issues concerning coroner office employee pay, according to Abbott.
“Deputies used to put in 110-130 hours a month and get paid for 160,” he said. “I refuse to do that. If you are supposed to work 160 hours a month, you are working 160 hours a month.
“That is what the taxpayers expect, and that is what we should do.”
Callahan says it’s frustrating to work in the coroner’s office without resources such as a morgue or a vehicle to transport bodies.
“The auditor would have to have calculators to run, a sheriff’s department would have to have a jail, the firefighters would have to have a fire engine,” she said. “I’m not sure why the coroner doesn’t have a morgue.”
A lack of cooperation and no response from county officials to the issues he has raised are compounding problems in the coroner’s office, according to Abbott.
“They haven’t resolved any of it,” he said. “I’m just going to have to call the feds in and say, ‘How do you clean this up?’ Because I don’t know and these people won’t tell me what to do.”