Studying dead bodies, sometimes mangled or decomposed, often in the middle of the night, is not most people's dream job.
Yet two Lexington men are competing on the Nov. 4 ballot to do it.
Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn, a Democrat who was first elected in 2002, is being challenged by Larry Owens, a Republican who retired from the coroner's office two years ago as a deputy.
The race won attention in August because of a complaint that Owens filed against Ginn before the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Ethics Commission. At issue: Ginn holds two jobs, one as the $71,000-a-year coroner and another as the $55,000-a-year body bequeathal coordinator at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. One way or another, taxpayers are getting shorted, Owens said in a recent interview.
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"Being coroner is a full-time job," Owens said. "Imagine if, when Jim Gray was elected mayor of Lexington, he decided he also wanted to keep running Gray Construction every day, rather than step down from the company, as he did. This isn't any different. I can tell you from having worked there that it wasn't uncommon for Mr. Ginn to come into the coroner's office at 3 p.m. and leave at 5 p.m."
The commission decided in closed session to dismiss Owens' complaint. In an Oct. 2 order, it said that the allegation was not brought forward within the one-year statute of limitations — Ginn has held both jobs since his 2002 election — and that there wasn't "a minimal factual basis" to show a conflict of interest between the two jobs. The commission's chairwoman, UK law professor Allison Connelly, did not return a call seeking comment.
"I'm very disappointed," Owens said. "But now we'll have to let the voters decide."
In response, Ginn said he might not work a traditional 9-to-5 schedule, but he isn't shorting anyone.
"I make myself very much available whenever I need to be here, including nights, weekends and holidays," Ginn said, sitting in the coroner's office on East Second Street. "My mother and father instilled a work ethic in me. I don't remember ever not having multiple jobs since I started working on farms as a boy."
Coroners investigate deaths other than those that are clearly from natural causes, and they report their findings to relatives, attorneys, police or prosecutors, depending on the facts of each case.
An elderly woman dying of cancer in hospice care probably wouldn't be a coroner's case. A corpse discovered next to a railroad track, a 20-year-old athlete collapsing mid-sprint or an apparent drug overdose at home would be.
During the past three years, Ginn said, his office has averaged 608 cases annually. For each, the coroner must determine the victim's identity and the cause and manner of death. The cause is "how" — for example, a gunshot wound to the head — and the manner is "what" — natural causes, accident, suicide or homicide. Exams are performed at the coroner's office, but coroners also may order an autopsy by the state medical examiner in Frankfort if they think a more extensive probe is necessary.
Getting the facts right about death can allow a family to claim a life insurance policy, help police catch a killer or identify a dangerous new drug in the community, Ginn said.
"We're not just a place that picks up bodies," Ginn said. "I'm able to take a puzzle that's been completely thrown out there and then put the pieces back together. Maybe not all of them, but enough to be able to tell the loved ones what happened at the death scene."
The coroner's office is budgeted to get $968,880 this year from the Urban County Government. Apart from Ginn, it employs eight deputies and a staff assistant. Although medical doctors have been Fayette County coroners, such a background is not legally required, and neither Ginn nor Owens is a doctor.
Ginn said he's proud of updated vehicles and equipment that he has added during his tenure, and of his assumed responsibility for indigent cremations and burials. He also points to a letter of commendation, framed on his office wall, from the National Transportation Safety Board that thanks him for his professional assistance after the 2006 crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport, where 49 people died.
Owens said that, if elected, he would spend time educating the community about preventable deaths, such as child abuse and drug overdoses.
"We've got all this information we've collected on deaths by various causes," Owens said. "I look at that and I think, 'OK, why not use it to prevent deaths?'"