Coroner Barry Busby checks his phone outside a closed hearing of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
By Miles Maguire
A year ago on Halloween, Winnebago County Coroner Barry L. Busby was just days away from a sweeping victory at the polls and re-election to his eighth full term in office with the highest vote count of anyone on the local ballot.
But 10 months later he is about to leave office in disgrace. This Halloween will be his last day on the job.
Busby’s stunning fall, announced at last week’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors and made official the next day with a letter of resignation, has its roots in the October 2017 conference of the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. It was at that meeting that Busby, apparently under the influence of alcohol, made lewd comments to and groped at a woman in attendance, a licensed physician assistant who was also an Army veteran.
She filed a formal complaint with the coroners organization, which in turn formed an Ethics Committee to look into the matter. Although the WCMEA has yet to take action on the complaint, word of the investigation became known to members of Busby’s staff.
This was not the first time that Busby had behaved inappropriately toward women, as evidenced by state and county investigations sparked by complaints filed by former Deputy Coroner Donna Francart. But this time the sexual harassment allegations arrived amid growing concerns about Busby’s ability to carry out his duties.
Over the summer of 2018, Busby’s former chief deputy noted unusual behavior from his longtime boss. “I did notice a drastic change in Barry toward me in 2018 including verbal threats against me when he heard a rumor that I might oppose him in the election,” the former aide, Chris Shea, said in a complaint he filed with the state Department of Workforce Development.
Last October Busby did not appear before county supervisors to present his budget. “He was in Hawaii,” said Bill Wingren, chairman of the county’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Bill Roh, a former vice chairman of the board, noted that when Busby did come before county supervisors his answers were rambling and did not respond to their questions.
Although county officials had their doubts about Busby, the public did not, awarding him more than 97 percent of the votes cast last November. By this time, the 72-year-old Busby had developed a reputation for caring deeply about family members and survivors and for pushing the county to do more to deal with avoidable deaths. He had also determined that this would be his final term in office.
At some point he realized that he did not have to spend time in Wisconsin to continue in his position, which pays $73,000 a year. County telephone records show that the coroner was in Florida for most of this past winter, starting just weeks after the votes were tallied. Busby has chalked his absences up to being under a doctor’s care for a back injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, but county officials are skeptical about this explanation because he never requested formal medical leave.
Busby’s office is responsible for investigating suspicious or unexplained deaths such as murders, suicides and overdoses, and Busby shares his duties with two deputies. According to County Executive Mark Harris, the deputies have covered all of the calls to attend the scene of a death “for a very long time” and this year have accompanied most of the corpses to Milwaukee, where they are taken for autopsy.
The situation came to a head in March, when Busby demoted Shea and stripped him of his duties. Because the deputies are paid on a per diem basis, these moves also meant that Shea would no longer get paid and was effectively out of a job. Shea took his concerns to higher officials, including a copy of the 2017 sexual harassment complaint and a list of irregularities in the coroner’s office.
With this information in hand, Harris and other officials then met with the coroner to suggest that he should leave gracefully and tender his resignation. Busby made it clear that he was not going anywhere.
In his mind there was no need to apologize or explain, as deaths were being investigated and his office was being represented at the various review boards that have been set up to work on suicides, child deaths and overdoses.
County residents first learned of the situation in June, when simultaneous news stories appeared in the Oshkosh Herald and the online Oshkosh Examiner. These articles described the concerns of top county officials and included information about Busby’s travels as documented in cellphone records as well as details about the sexual harassment investigation by the coroners group.
Over the summer, the county board’s panel on public safety continued to investigate, and more details emerged about previous instances of alleged sexual harassment. Other accusations came out that Busby had abused his office by misusing funds and personnel and by encouraging tissue donations that would benefit a company where two of his sons had worked.
Additional news organizations, including daily newspapers and radio and TV stations, picked up the story, adding to the pressure for Busby to resign. “The press has been very thorough and very accurate in reporting the various abuses,” Wingren said at last week’s board meeting. “I commend each and every one of them for getting this out to the public.”
To the very end, Busby had his supporters, including former colleagues and members of his current staff, who attested to the coroner’s integrity and sympathy for those in suffering. As recently as Aug. 12, Busby was defiant, denying all charges and threatening legal action against those who were making allegations or reporting on them.
Less than a week before the first formal censure action was taken against him, Busby’s 102-year-old mother died in Illinois. Speaking to the county board, he cited her memory, and the fact that her birthday was Oct. 31, in announcing that his resignation would take effect that day. Despite hearing an emotional speech from Busby about the stress of the job, supervisors opted to issue a formal censure and statement of no confidence. The resolution passed 29 to 1 with five abstentions.
When they first became concerned about Busby’s job performance, county officials felt stymied. As an elected official, Busby had no administrative supervisor and was likely to stay in office unless a recall was mounted or the governor exercised the rarely used power of removal.
Going forward, however, Harris and other county leaders expect to pass legislation that would replace the elected coroner position with that of an appointed medical examiner. That person would likely have to have specific training and qualifications in handling death investigations.
In the meantime the coroner’s position, which has been held by a Republican for about as long as anyone can remember, is set to be filled by an appointee of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.