December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Ex-coroner suspended for ‘blocking’ harassment investigation

ELYRIA — Former Lorain County Coroner Paul Matus was suspended with pay Wednesday from his job as medical director for the Lorain County General Health District while the county’s Board of Health considers whether to discipline or fire him.

Matus

Matus is being investigated for allegedly interfering with an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment that were leveled against him last year, according to a letter sent to Interim Health Commissioner Dave Covell by Matus’ attorney, David Cuppage.

Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes said the sexual harassment investigation into Matus has been closed and the former coroner isn’t facing disciplinary action for those allegations. He said what’s being looked at now is what Matus did after the sexual harassment investigation began.

Innes declined to discuss details of either the closed sexual harassment investigation or the current allegations. Board members refused to comment on their unanimous vote to suspend Matus or their decision to bring in an outside firm to conduct a disciplinary hearing.

But Cuppage wrote that the sexual harassment investigation was launched Aug. 6, and he called the allegations “trumped up.”

“As reported to Dr. Matus, the vague and unsubstantiated allegations that he ‘stands too close,’ ‘he’s friendly,’ ‘he’s flirtatious at times,’ ‘he’s behind the times,’ and ‘he talks about his personal life,’ do not amount to sexual harassment or the creation of a hostile work place,” Cuppage wrote.

He also wrote that Matus rejected an ultimatum that he resign or be fired.

“We are looking forward to defending Dr. Matus’ good name and reputation,” Cuppage said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Matus declined to comment on the advice of his attorney when reached by phone after the meeting.

Innes said that the county disputes the accuracy of Cuppage’s letter, which was sent to Covell on Friday.

Cuppage wrote in his letter that the sexual harassment investigation began after complaints were made against Matus, but the people who filed the complaints have never been identified, and Matus himself was unaware of the investigation until after he received a call from a former Health District employee who was called to Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will’s office to be questioned about Matus’ “behavior.”

A few days after that on Dec. 12, Cuppage wrote, Matus asked Innes if sexual harassment allegations had been made against him, but Innes never confirmed or denied it and didn’t tell him about the investigation.

On Dec, 14, Covell reportedly told Matus that “there’s been a complaint about you, but it doesn’t rise to sexual harassment,” Cuppage wrote.

On Jan. 11, Matus met with Innes, Covell and board member Bill Spreng and was told to resign or he would be fired, Cuppage wrote, and it was during that meeting that Matus learned when the investigation began. He also was told he had “interfered with the investigation” and “reached into the ‘family life of another employee’ ” by calling the worker’s ex-husband, whom Matus knew from the gym, the letter said.

Matus also was told “that he was ‘deceptive’ about not letting on that he knew about the investigation on December 14th,” Cuppage wrote.

“It is clear to me that only party guilty of deception is the Board of Health by failing to formally notify Dr. Matus that an investigation was underway (and actively concealed the fact that it was underway),” Cuppage wrote.

Matus was never told he would be interviewed and was never told not to contact anyone involved in the investigation, the letter said.

Cuppage wrote that standard practice is to give someone accused of sexual harassment an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations.

He also wrote that it would have been “impossible” for Matus to interfere with an investigation of which he had never been informed.

“The fact that he has now been advised that this conduct is the sole basis for his termination is clearly pretextual,” Cuppage wrote.

And while Matus was in the dark about the ongoing investigation, it was the subject of “gossip and rumormongering” at the Health District’s offices, Cuppage wrote.

Cuppage also called the timing of the investigation “highly suspicious” and wrote that it appeared to have been launched in retaliation for Matus’ suspected role in “substantial negative publicity” caused by former Health Commissioner Ken Pearce’s Aug. 31 retirement and plans to return to his former job after 60 days had passed.

That legal practice, known as “double-dipping,” would have allowed Pearce to collect both retirement payments and a salary from the Health District.

The Health Board delayed a September vote to bring Pearce back as interim health commissioner after the issue became public and voted in October to hire him as a consultant. Covell is expected to be named Pearce’s permanent replacement at a meeting next month.

With Matus on leave, the Health Board authorized Covell to find a replacement to serve as interim medical director.

Matus retired as county coroner, a job to which he was first elected in 1992, at the end of June 2011 citing personal reasons. His decision to leave more than a year before his term expired followed public battles with the county commissioners over his budget and the location of his offices in Oberlin.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.