Former Douglas County deputy coroner sues boss he helped get elected

Image 1 of 2

A man who once campaigned to help elect Douglas County's first female coroner is now suing her, arguing she fired him because he's a whistleblower.

The surprising development comes as coroner Renee Godwin faces criticism for relying on her deputies -- instead of herself -- to conduct most death investigations. She denies she's done nothing wrong.

Godwin's job performance has been under attack by some in Douglas County pretty much since the day she took office. One of her first requests was an 81 percent budget increase, including bumping her $32,599 a year part-time salary to $58,000 a year. Commissioners rejected that idea. But the controversies have only grown since then.

The latest involves her former chief deputy coroner.

"For some reason, and this I don't know, she had ulterior motive for me to help get her into office and then get me out of the way," Rogers told the FOX 5 I-Team.

We first met Rogers in August, 2016, months before the general election. He gave us an explosive tip: the current coroner at the time, Randy Daniel, had offered his Democratic challenger Renee Godwin $2000 to drop out of the race.           

She refused. Then she beat him.

 "I have a passion for wanting to help people," Godwin told us back then. "I have empathy for them."

She quickly hired Rogers as her chief deputy coroner. But 18 months later, Rogers would be gone. Fired by the woman he helped get elected.

"I have a right to fire or hire him," she told us recently. "And that's what I did. I fired him."

The dispute stems from death certificates showing where, when and how someone died and who from the coroner's office pronounced that death. The FOX 5 I-Team reviewed several that show coroner Godwin was the pronouncer. But she was never there. According to county records, Wayne Rogers investigated those cases and pronounced the person dead at the scene.

According to his whistleblower lawsuit, a county commissioner had questions about 11 death cases and asked Rogers to bring the files. That was in 2017. The commissioner told him "the reports were forged, altered, or falsified."

Godwin would fire him three months later, claiming he violated privacy laws by removing those files from the coroner's office.

"You're not allowed to take the files period out of this office," Godwin insisted.

The Department of Labor ruled in favor of Rogers and granted him unemployment benefits. As for those death certificates, the coroner admitted to us her name is on some she never worked.

"If you want to help out another deputy, you sign off," she explained. "Most of the time, I would sign off if they had work, if they... behind or whatever the case may be."

But putting your name down as the pronouncer is not allowed. According to the state agency that manages death certificates, the pronouncer must be the person who investigated the death.

Godwin doesn't know how her name got listed as the pronouncer. She says there was no intent to deceive.

But Rogers thinks he knows why the coroner put her name on those death certificates. She was asking for a big raise, while investigating few deaths herself.

"She's only getting paid part-time," I pointed out. "So is it fair to expect her to go on a lot of calls?"

"I would say it's fair to expect her to go out on a reasonable number of calls," Rogers replied.

According to county records, last year Godwin investigated 31 deaths. That's 31 out of 318.

This year, the coroner is more involved. According to the records she showed us, in the first two months her name is listed as investigator on 11 cases. That's about 20 percent of the deaths.

It costs taxpayers more when the coroner does not respond. She pays her deputy coroners $175 for each case they investigate. When she investigates, taxpayers are charged no additional fees.

"What I've been doing is administrative things in the office," she said, offering an explanation for why she doesn't investigate more cases. "We're in the process of trying to get the coroner's office nationally accredited."

She says that involves the help of Larry Bussey, who was once the coroner's campaign manager. She hired him to be her part-time administrative assistant and gave him a county take-home car.

We asked why a part-time employee warrants a car.

"He's entitled to a county car per my policy," Godwin answered. We pointed out that Bussey makes an 80-mile roundtrip between home and work each workday.

"I don't know his mileage." she replied.

She also didn't seem to know her own mileage. Douglas County provides the coroner an unmarked Black Expedition which, per policy, is not supposed to be used for personal business. Our analysis showed she drove it more than 15,000 miles last year, including one month -- August -- where she racked up more than 2600 miles.

"I know I didn't drive no 2600 miles," she said when we confronted her with those numbers.

"Well if you had that meant you were driving somewhere outside of Douglas County, right?"

"Yes sir."

"That's a lot of miles."

"It is," she agreed.

"Especially when you're not going on a lot of calls," I added.

She later admitted taking her daughter back to college in Alabama, but insisted the other trips were all justified. The man who was once one of her biggest fans is no longer so sure.

"My goal was to make us look good," Rogers said. "Not to make excuses for looking bad."