April 24, 2014

Elyria
Intermittent clouds
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test

Former coroner notified of suspension, ordered not to interfere

ELYRIA — Dr. Paul Matus, who was put on paid leave Wednesday from his job as medical director for the Lorain County General Health District, was warned Thursday not to interfere with a neutral hearing officer who will be brought in to investigate misconduct allegations against the former county coroner.

Matus

“You are cautioned against interfering with the hearing officer and directed to cooperate with that officer,” Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes wrote in a letter to Matus formally notifying him of his suspension from his $48,000-per-year job.

Innes and Health District officials have largely declined to discuss exactly what wrongdoing Matus is accused of, although Innes said an inquiry into sexual harassment allegations leveled against Matus last year didn’t result in any discipline.

The current investigation “involves his behavior subsequent to the inquiry,” Innes said Thursday.

David Cuppage, Matus’ lawyer, wrote in a letter, sent to interim Health Commissioner Dave Covell last week, that Matus has been accused of interfering in the sexual harassment investigation and being deceptive about what he knew about the investigation Dec. 14.

Matus reportedly met with Covell that day and was told that “there’s been a complaint against you, but it doesn’t rise to sexual harassment.”

Matus only learned that he was being investigated a few days before that, Cuppage wrote, because a former Health District employee called to tell him prosecutors wanted to interview her about his behavior.

The allegations against Matus were 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,” according to Cuppage’s letter, which called the allegations “vague and unsubstantiated.”

Covell and board member Bill Spreng met with Matus on Jan. 11 and, according to Cuppage, told him to resign or he would be fired.

Innes wrote Thursday that the county Board of Health is considering firing or disciplining Matus for cause under the terms spelled out in his contract.

According to Matus’ contract, the former county coroner can be terminated for reasons including “breach or neglect of duty, violation of any law, dishonesty, insubordination, or gross misconduct.”

Cuppage said Thursday that neither he nor Matus have been formally notified of exactly what the allegations against his client are. He said his description of the allegations comes from the scraps of information he and Matus have been able to gather.

But he also has said that Matus intends to fight to defend himself against the accusations of wrongdoing.

The contract doesn’t specifically state that Matus is entitled to a hearing. Instead, the contract can be terminated either by Matus or the board for cause with 30 days written notice.

But Innes said the board felt it was better to go through the disciplinary process, including a hearing in which Matus would be allowed to mount a defense.

“Everybody’s entitled to due process,” he said.

Innes also said that there were a number of inaccurate statements in Cuppage’s letter, including his assertion that the sexual harassment investigation was launched Aug. 6.

Innes said it was less of an investigation and more of a “fact-finding mission” by his office to gather information to provide legal advice to the Board of Health.

Covell said it was former Health Commissioner Ken Pearce, who retired Aug. 31, who asked the prosecutor’s office to get involved.

“There was a comment made right when Ken was leaving and he contacted the prosecutor and said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ” Covell said.

Cuppage wrote in his letter that he believes the investigation is meant as retaliation for Matus’ suspected involvement in the “substantial negative publicity” surrounding Pearce’s retirement and a plan to bring him back to his old job after he had been gone for 60 days. Pearce then would have been able to collect both a paycheck and his retirement benefits.

The Health Board had originally planned to rehire Pearce at its September meeting, but delayed that after the proposal became public knowledge. In October, the board voted to hire Pearce as a consultant. Covell is expected to be formally named health commissioner at a meeting next month.

Pearce declined to comment Thursday.

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