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Ex-coroner who quit over lack of independence joins corrections department

The chief coroner who quit over a lack of independence in 2010 is returning to B.C. Corrections.

A notice published Sept. 3 on the B.C. Bid website said the Ministry of Justice intends to hire Dr. Diane Rothon on a $372,000 no-bid contract. The deadline for anyone wishing to contest the contract is 2 p.m. on Sept. 15, the date on which the ministry wants to begin the one-year assignment.

The notice said Rothon's services "relate to providing quality, appropriate, effective and affordable health care services to inmates in the care of the Corrections Branch."

Rothon, a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. and Canadian Medical Protective Association, is expected to provide medical expertise, oversight and advice to senior management.

Rothon was director of health services for B.C. Corrections before she was appointed chief coroner on April 1, 2010. She resigned on Dec. 13, 2010, citing meddling.

In an email to B.C. Coroners Service staff, obtained via Freedom of Information by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, she said: "I cannot lead you where the system will not let me go myself, and it has become increasingly apparent to me that, under the current structure and the plan for the [service] within that structure, the coroners service will continue to be eroded and weakened.

"It has come to a point where my professional ethics and personal values are being compromised and so I must go where I can make a difference without experiencing the moral residue that results from conflicting principles."

The government initially claimed Rothon was terminated. She was paid $128,183 in severance.

BCCLA complained to the Office of the Ombudsperson after Rothon's departure. In July 2011, B.C. auditor general John Doyle concluded in a report that the agency lacked independence and was insufficiently funded. Its 2007 budget was $14 million. By 2011, it had fallen to $13 million. B.C. Coroners Service is a subsidiary of the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General. Rothon reported directly to assistant deputy minister Becky Denlinger, who is now deputy minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.

During Rothon's short tenure as chief coroner, her office's highest profile investigation was the Whistler Sliding Centre death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on Feb. 12, 2010, the opening day of the Winter Olympics.

The report that ruled the death an accident was completed Sept. 16, 2010, but not released until Oct. 4, 2010. That was three days after then-premier Gordon Campbell's Olympic-themed keynote speech at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler. Earlier that week, on Sept. 27, 2010, Sport Minister Ida Chong announced a $650,000 grant to Own the Podium in a news conference at the former Whistler Olympic Village.

A year after the Games, CBC's Fifth Estate published an email it obtained from the B.C. Coroners Service that proved VANOC officials knew the track was unsafe almost a year before the Games, because athletes were reaching speeds higher than what the track was designed for.

In a March 2009 email reacting track architect Udo Gurgel's safety complaints, VANOC CEO John Furlong wrote: "An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing."

The day after Kumaritashvili died, the start area for male athletes was moved down the track to the women's start area, to reduce the speed of lugers.

North Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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