|The Winnebago County coroner's office is in the basement of the Orrin King Building on Algoma Boulevard.|
By Miles MaguireLocal officials are calling on Winnebago County Coroner Barry L. Busby to resign in the wake of his recent erratic behavior, including extended absences from the state, the dismissal of his longtime chief deputy and sexual harassment incidents that have gotten him temporarily banned from meetings of the state professional association whose members investigate suspicious deaths.
Busby, who is in his 70s, has taken a high-profile role in addressing issues such as drug-related deaths and teen suicides. He has enjoyed such a strongly positive reputation that he was re-elected in November to a four-year term with the largest vote total of any candidate on the local ballot.
But county telephone records show that the coroner spent most of this past winter in Florida, starting just weeks after the votes were tallied. His office is responsible for investigating suspicious or unexplained deaths such as murders, suicides and overdoses as well as providing services such as cremation permits and death certificates.
In an interview Busby defended his record while alluding to medical-related personal issues. He noted there have been no complaints about the operations of his office, said the firing of his deputy was fully documented and denied any inappropriate sexual behavior. “I am currently under medical care, and I have no other comments,” Busby said.
The coroner, a Republican, has served in that office for more than 20 years and earns an annual salary of $72,989. He oversees a budget of slightly more than $500,000 and is assisted by three part-time workers: an administrative associate and two deputy coroners. A website biography says Busby worked in the Oshkosh Police Department for 27 years and retired as a sergeant.
As an elected official, Busby does not have any administrative supervisor and answers only to voters. But County Executive Mark Harris, who holds a nonpartisan position, and Sheriff John Matz, a Republican, both said they have spoken to Busby and suggested that he relinquish his post.
“I am concerned about him as a human being,” said Bill Wingren, who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee of the county Board of Supervisors. But “my personal opinion is ... that the public and Barry would be served by his resignation as soon as possible.”
Wingren’s committee, which has budgetary authority over the coroner’s office although no direct oversight of how it operates, has met in closed session to discuss the situation. The panel recognizes that it cannot force Busby from office, said Wingren, who represents an eastside neighborhood of Oshkosh. “There is nothing we can do about it.”
Wingren said he is concerned about the situation both because the coroner’s role is to “deal with people at the most sensitive point in their life” and because the allegations against Busby raise serious questions about someone who has until now has been so highly regarded.
Busby ran unopposed in 2018 and has earned wide respect based on his community work. In a September 2018 letter to county officials, Busby enumerated his accomplishments, such as helping to start the county’s Heroin Task Force, promoting suicide prevention efforts through the Community for Hope and the Yellow Ribbon Program, serving on the Child Death Review Team and contributing to the re:TH!NK partnership, a countywide effort to promote healthy living.
“Barry and I have had that conversation about what he’s added to the coroner’s office,” said Matz. “There’s a time when you relish in all your accomplishments, but there’s also a time when you ride off into the sunset.”
Harris acknowledged Busby’s strengths, including his empathy when dealing with people under tragic circumstances. But “since his election, I think he’s been taking advantage of the public,” Harris said.
Busby has a county-issued cellphone, and the digital records it creates can be used to trace his location. According to call logs obtained from Winnebago County, Busby’s phone “pinged” out-of-state cell towers, mostly in Florida, during various timeframes amounting to at least 83 days starting in mid-December and continuing through the next four months into the spring.
The coroner’s office investigates about seven deaths a month with autopsies performed by the medical examiner in Milwaukee. The standard practice is to have someone from the coroner’s staff attend the autopsy, with Winnebago County covering the travel costs. An indication that Busby has not been working locally is that he has requested reimbursement for only four of the 27 autopsies that were completed through April, according to county records.
Busby argues that his absence from the state has not affected the quality of service his office provides. But Harris said there is a cost to taxpayers because one of the deputy coroners has to pick up the slack when Busby is not around. The deputies are paid on a per diem basis with additional expense reimbursement.
Matz said regardless of cost or service, another issue is the duty of elected officials to be available to local residents. Like Busby, the sheriff was voted into office and is not directly accountable to anyone in county government.
“I have had a conversation [with Busby] about my perspective on the expectations of voters and taxpayers as a peer,” Matz said. “If I voted in an elected official, I would expect that the elected official is available at all times. If an elected official is out of state, he is not available … to voters and taxpayers.”
While there were previous concerns about Busby’s work schedule, the issue came to a head after March 6, when the coroner fired his chief deputy, Chris Shea, who said he had worked in the office for 14 years.
Busby said that Shea’s termination was “properly documented and appropriately handled.” But without releasing any details of the underlying facts, county Human Resources Director Michael Collard disputed this account.
According to statute the deputy coroners serve at the pleasure of their boss. “That overrides county policies on employment actions,” Collard said. “In such a case, we do not do all the types of things we would do for a typical county employee.”
Shea, now working as an investigator for the Fond du Lac County Medical Examiner’s Office, said he thinks that what set Busby against him was his knowledge of the sexual harassment complaint that was investigated by the state coroners organization.
“He knew that I knew a lot of things, and that scared him,” Shea said.
The complaint, which Shea said he originally learned of from Busby, is based on an incident at the fall 2017 conference of the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association.
Miranda Zuhlke, a licensed physician assistant who was then working for a nonprofit tissue donation service, described the incident in a letter of complaint to WCMEA.
At a dinner on Oct. 23, she “was approached by Barry Busby, Winnebago County coroner, who expressed explicit unwelcomed sexual comments,” wrote Zuhlke, who holds two master’s degrees and served as a sergeant in the Army, according to her online profile.
At one point Busby grabbed at her hand, Zuhlke said, and then “continued to express drunken sexual comments in which I did not respond or give attention to.” Busby tried to apologize the following morning at breakfast, complimenting Zuhlke and her colleagues as “just really pretty,” she said in her complaint.
“This narcissistic comment represents the rape culture that many men believe warrants their unwanted actions,” Zuhlke wrote. “Although in his mind he ‘apologized,’ he was only trying to justify his lack of self-control and urges by blaming me as the victim for my appearance.”
According to her letter, Busby has engaged in similar behavior previously. “He has made multiple gestures and actions towards other women that attest to his debauchery,” she wrote.
She called on WCMEA to take her complaints seriously. “Through my military and medical experience, I have seen sexual harassment and assault too often swept under the rug.”
Although Busby denies that the incident occurred, Zuhkle said in an interview that she has multiple witnesses. In response to the complaint, WCMEA formed an ethics panel to look into Busby and ended up issuing a temporary ban on his attendance at meetings.
“Our Ethics Committee has been looking at the issue at length and has written their evaluation of the case,” said Angela Hinze, the chief medical examiner in Columbia County and the current WCMEA president. She said the report is being examined by legal counsel before being submitted to the group’s board of directors.
“It is the board’s discretion as to the outcome,” she said in an email message. “Mr. Busby was asked not to attend the conference training until the board makes its final disciplinary decision.”
Harris said he confronted Busby about his absences from the state in mid-April and suggested he resign. But Busby, according to Harris, said he could not resign “because that would mess up my real estate closing on a condo in Florida.”
“I am not Barry’s boss,” Harris said. “He really only answers to the public.”
As an elected official, Busby is subject to a recall election. But under state law he cannot be recalled for at least one year after an election, Harris said. “The public has limited recourse.”
Harris said he has notified the governor’s office about the situation. But since there are no allegations of criminal conduct, it’s questionable whether the state will get involved, Harris said.