Listen Live Twelve current and former employees told Wisconsin Watch that they regularly endured bullying, screaming and insults from two of their bosses in the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office at 3111 Luds Road in McFarland, Wis. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch The Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office in April rehired an unpopular former operations director, prompting his shocked colleagues to make public longstanding complaints that he and his bosses created “a toxic work environment” that top county officials failed to fix. Twelve current and former employees told Wisconsin Watch that they regularly endured bullying, screaming and insults from two of their bosses: Barry Irmen, who served as operations director from 2011 until January, when he retired, returning to the office on a part-time, interim basis on April 27; and Dr. Agnieszka Rogalska, who rose to chief medical examiner in January after eight years as deputy chief medical examiner. Former pathologists said they gave up lucrative contracts with the office to preserve their mental health. High employee turnover worsened a backlog of pending autopsy cases, leaving families waiting for death certificates needed for closure or insurance payouts, multiple employees said. The alleged toxicity spilled into other counties, where some officials said they avoided or halted their relationships with the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, citing behavior by Irmen and Rogalska that allegedly included yelling at an Oconto County chief deputy medical examiner in her living room. Multiple employees accused Dr. Vincent Tranchida of standing idle while witnessing animosity that spanned more than a decade. Rogalska replaced Tranchida, who now is a deputy medical examiner. In an email to Wisconsin Watch, Tranchida denied witnessing Irmen or Rogalska yell, scream or “interact with employees in a way that was unprofessional.” Nor had Tranchida noticed increased stress in the office since Irmen’s return, he wrote.
Barry Irmen is shown outside of an autopsy room in Madison, Wis., Jan. 12, 2018. The longtime Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office operations director retired in January 2022 and was rehired in April on an interim basis. Twelve current and former employees told Wisconsin Watch that they endured screaming and insults from Irmen and Dr. Agnieszka Rogalska, the chief medical examiner, who oversaw what they describe as a toxic workplace. Irmen and Rogalska deny the allegations. Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal
Barry Irmen is shown outside of an autopsy room in Madison, Wis., Jan. 12, 2018. The longtime Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office operations director retired in January 2022 and was rehired in April on an interim basis. Twelve current and former employees told Wisconsin Watch that they endured screaming and insults from Irmen and Dr. Agnieszka Rogalska, the chief medical examiner, who oversaw what they describe as a toxic workplace. Irmen and Rogalska deny the allegations. Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal But he said he had “fielded questions and concerns regarding multiple members of my staff at various levels of employment, including Dr. Rogalska and Barry Irmen. These concerns were discussed and investigated, and corrective actions taken where needed.” Rogalska, who pulls a $331,780 annual salary, denied the accusations. “I have never screamed, insulted or bullied any employee or witnessed the same from any other employee,” she wrote in a statement. Irmen, who makes $90 an hour, also denied yelling or screaming at employees in the office. “I do not believe that the environment (is) toxic or hostile,” he said in a statement, adding: “Part of every job has something that we don’t enjoy doing or like to have to do.” Tensions peaked in April after Sue Eskola resigned as operations director four months into Irmen’s brief retirement, according to Brian Standing, president of AFSCME Local 1871, Dane County’s public sector employee union chapter. That’s when Rogalska announced Irmen’s temporary return during the search for Eskola’s replacement. Dr. Agnieszka Rogalska is now testifying. She performed autopsy on VanderHeyden. #BurchTrialpic.twitter.com/24RoFwaxHH — Ben Krumholz WLUK (@BenKrumholzWLUK) February 20, 2018 Some officials said they avoided or halted their relationships with the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, citing behavior by Barry Irmen and Dr. Agnieszka Rogalska, seen above in this tweet, that allegedly included yelling at an Oconto County chief deputy medical examiner in her living room. Standing said he fielded an “onrush” of calls from concerned union members following the reshuffling. Complaints about Irmen’s behavior trickled in for a decade, Standing said, but few advanced because employees hesitated to document interactions. “People have been really, really afraid of retaliation,” Standing said. “And so they haven’t been willing to stick their necks out to do that.” Until now. Speaking to Wisconsin Watch, current and former investigators, autopsy technicians and pathologists described hostile working conditions. All said they otherwise loved the work they did. Those who left said they would have stayed under better management. Five pathologists have started and left the office since 2013, and dozens of other employees have left over the same period, including death investigators, autopsy technicians and administrators, according to a list compiled by current staff. Wisconsin Watch could not independently verify the reasons for each departure. Tranchida described Rogalska and Irmen as hard-working colleagues with rigorous scientific and professional standards. He added that “some employees may not be compatible with a workplace.” “We are aware that this work can be very difficult and stressful, and our volume is considerable,” he wrote. “Our goal is always to provide the most scientifically accurate and humane service we can to the public we serve and to support our staff in their work as best we can.” In 2020, the county’s Employee Relations Division and the Office for Equity and Inclusion jointly investigated the workplace culture within the medical examiner’s office. The result: Employees received a summary of their concerns alongside reminders of county policies. The document described office work environment challenges as “similar to other County work environments.” It also appeared to lay blame in part on the complaining employees, stating, “Some staff expressed concerns about co-workers gossiping, spreading rumors and slandering other employees or Management.” Multiple employees said conditions have not improved since that report was issued. “It felt like our voices don’t matter,” said one current investigator who asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation. “We all just poured out everything — not to hear anything back.” Why Eskola — a veteran death investigator — left her operations director role depends upon whom you ask. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi referred questions to Greg Brockmeyer, Dane County’s director of administration. Brockmeyer did not comment on the investigation or staff complaints. Brockmeyer wrote in an email that Eskola resigned to “seek another opportunity.” Sources close to the situation said she was pressured to leave. Eskola declined to comment. “By all accounts, Sue was an excellent supervisor,” Standing said.
Former pathologists in the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office in McFarland, Wis., said they left the office, giving up lucrative contracts, rather than accept management that they said jeopardized their mental health. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch
Former pathologists in the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office in McFarland, Wis., said they left the office, giving up lucrative contracts, rather than accept management that they said jeopardized their mental health. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch Brockmeyer expressed gratitude for Irmen’s return. “We are appreciative that Barry was willing to return from his retirement to help bridge the gap and ensure the 24/7 nature of the Medical Examiner’s Office can continue to function while the search for the regular, full time replacement of that position is underway,” he wrote in an email. Addressing Irmen’s return, Brockmeyer wrote: “In accordance with our standard practice, we sought and obtained the County Executive’s oral authorization to proceed with the hire.” Patrick Miles, the newly elected Board of Supervisors chair and a recent member of the county board’s Personnel and Finance Committee, said he did not know about the office turmoil until a county employee told him in late April. He said the board will examine a reporting system that left county employees too afraid to speak out about workplace treatment. “We’ve got to adjust the system in some fashion that employees feel safe to be forthright about concerns about their treatment in the workplace.” Miles said. Dane County has never had its full complement of five budgeted pathologists, which Tranchida and Irmen attributed to a nationwide shortage of candidates. Pathologist Dr. Anita Rajkumar told Wisconsin Watch that the office climate contributed to her suicidal thoughts that eased once she found a new job. Rajkumar arrived in 2017 after the county recruited her, sponsored her work visa and paid for her to relocate from Canada. Her working relationship with Irmen, Tranchida and Rogalska deteriorated within her first year, she said.
Rogalska agreed to let Rajkumar designate a safe word — banana — to halt escalating arguments, according to Tranchida’s summary of a conversation provided by Rajkumar. Rajkumar said Rogalska would stand over her shoulder while she edited reports, nitpicking her writing. She said she frequently worked late into the evening or early morning. Rajkumar, who is of East Indian ancestry, said Rogalska once whispered to her that she was a “brown stripe on our flag” and separately scolded her for wearing a tunic over tights and for walking down hallways “very aggressively.” In a statement, Rogalska denied making any racist remarks about Rajkumar. During a stretch of 35 consecutive working days, Rajkumar said she scraped her car against a dumpster in the office parking lot due to exhaustion. She said she contemplated suicide before her parents, friends and colleagues encouraged her to resign and find another employer to sponsor her visa. A therapist who counseled Rajkumar wrote that “her serious mental health issues are solely related to the way she was treated at her job as a medical examiner,” according to a copy of the therapist’s report provided to Wisconsin Watch. She left her position in 2019 and now works as a medical examiner in New Jersey. “I am extraordinarily happy where I’ve landed,” she said. Dr. Cori Breslauer, who joined the office as a forensic pathologist in 2020, described similar despair over office working conditions. Breslauer, who is transgender and uses they/them pronouns, said most colleagues accepted and accomodated their identity. But Irmen and Rogalska would “maliciously misgender me basically until the end of my employment,” Breslauer said. Irmen addressed them repeatedly as “ma’am” even after being told to stop, they said.
As Dane County transitioned away from a coroner’s office to an appointed medical examiner in 2011, Barry Irmen led operations and managed investigators. Employees he managed told Wisconsin Watch that investigators felt chained to their jobs as they absorbed more responsibilities. Irmen is pictured in his office on Dec. 10, 2010. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal
As Dane County transitioned away from a coroner’s office to an appointed medical examiner in 2011, Barry Irmen led operations and managed investigators. Employees he managed told Wisconsin Watch that investigators felt chained to their jobs as they absorbed more responsibilities. Irmen is pictured in his office on Dec. 10, 2010. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal Stay informed with WPR’s email newsletter.
Rogalska and Irmen told Wisconsin Watch that they never intentionally misgendered Breslauer, adding that they apologized after any pronoun slip-ups. Rogalska would repeatedly reject Breslauer’s medical opinions and set unrealistic expectations during on-call shifts that destroyed their personal life, Breslauer said. “I was jealous of the body on the table,” Breslauer said. “There were days I would come to the office, and I would look at the body on the table and would want to trade places.” Tranchida offered to help, Breslauer said, but balked at suggestions to change office culture and practices. Tranchida told Wisconsin Watch that Breslauer’s suggested changes would have eroded the office’s quality of service and unequally distributed work. Breslauer feared retaliation for requesting a sick day to see a counselor, so they never did. Tranchida declined to comment on Breslauer’s “protected health information” but said he would have directed any employee who was struggling to the Dane County Employee Assistance Program, which offers free counseling services, trauma responses and other resources. Dane County hired a mediator to work with Bresaluer and Rogalska, but by December 2021, Breslauer had already announced plans to leave. Just weeks before the resignation, Tranchida recommended a 15% merit raise for Bresaluer, citing “exemplary performance.” Said Breslauer: “I was immediately cured the moment I left that office.” The tense environment affected work beyond Dane County. Under Tranchida, Dane County began contracting autopsy services to other counties, with Irmen overseeing the partnership. It now performs autopsies for Brown, Door, Oconto and Rock counties.
Multiple Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office employees said Dr. Vincent Tranchida failed to address a “toxic work environment” that featured yelling, screaming and bullying for more than a decade. Tranchida told Wisconsin Watch that he never witnessed such behavior. Tranchida was previously chief medical examiner and voluntarily accepted a new role as deputy medical examiner in early 2022. He is shown in a Public Safety Building office in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 28, 2011. M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal