The Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office in April rehired an unpopular former operations director, prompting his shocked colleagues to air longstanding complaints that he and his bosses created “a toxic work environment” that top county officials failed to fix.

Twelve current and former employees tell Wisconsin Watch that they endured screaming and insults from two of their bosses: Barry Irmen, 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, named chief medical examiner in January after eight years as deputy chief medical examiner.

Former pathologists say they gave up lucrative contracts to preserve their mental health. High employee turnover worsened a backlog of autopsy cases, leaving families waiting for death certificates, multiple employees say.

Multiple employees accuse 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.”

But Tranchida says 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, denies 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.”

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.

Complaints about Irmen’s behavior trickled in for a decade, Standing says, but few advanced because employees hesitated to document interactions for fear of retaliation.

Until now. 

Speaking to Wisconsin Watch, current and former investigators, autopsy technicians and pathologists described hostile working conditions. Those who left say they would have stayed under better management. 

Tranchida described Rogalska and Irmen as hard-working colleagues with rigorous scientific and professional standards. “Some employees may not be compatible with a workplace,” he added.

“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,” he wrote.

In 2020, the county’s Employee Relations Division and the Office for Equity and Inclusion jointly investigated the medical examiner’s office workplace culture. 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 scold complaining employees, stating, “Some staff expressed concerns about co-workers gossiping, spreading rumors and slandering other employees or Management.”

Multiple employees say conditions have not improved.

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. But he expressed gratitude for Irmen’s return during the search for Eskola’s permanent replacement.

Patrick Miles, the newly elected Board of Supervisors chair, says he did not know about the office turmoil until a county employee told him in late April. He says the board will examine a reporting system that left employees afraid to speak out: “We’ve got to adjust the system in some fashion that employees feel safe to be forthright about concerns about their treatment.”

‘I was jealous of the body on the table’

Dane County has never had its full complement of five budgeted pathologists, which Tranchida and Irmen attribute to a nationwide shortage of candidates. Pathologist Dr. Anita Rajkumar tells Wisconsin Watch that the office climate contributed to her suicidal thoughts that eased once she left.

Rajkumar arrived in 2017 after the county recruited her, sponsored her work visa and paid for her relocation from Canada. Her working relationship with Irmen, Tranchida and Rogalska quickly deteriorated, she says.

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 says Rogalska would stand over her shoulder while she edited reports, nitpicking her writing. She says her work frequently spanned late nights or early mornings. Rajkumar, who is of East Indian ancestry, says Rogalska once whispered to her that she was a “brown stripe on our flag” and separately scolded her for walking down hallways “very aggressively.”

In a statement, Rogalska denied making any racist remarks about Rajkumar.

Rajkumar says she contemplated suicide before her loved ones encouraged her to 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.”

She left in 2019 and now works as a medical examiner in New Jersey. “I am extraordinarily happy where I’ve landed,” she says.

Dr. Cori Breslauer, who joined the office as a forensic pathologist in 2020, describes similar despair over office working conditions.

Breslauer, who is transgender and uses they/them pronouns, says most colleagues accepted their identity. But Irmen and Rogalska would “maliciously misgender me,” Breslauer says. Irmen addressed them repeatedly as “ma’am” even after being told to stop, they say.

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 says.

“I was jealous of the body on the table,” Breslauer says. “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.”

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 says he would have directed any employee who was struggling to the Dane County Employee Assistance Program, which offers free counseling 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 percent merit raise for Bresaluer, citing “exemplary performance.”

Says Breslauer: “I was immediately cured the moment I left that office.”

Treated ‘like we were stupid, northern wood ticks’

The alleged toxicity spilled 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.

La Crosse County Chief Medical Examiner Tim Candahl says he asked his county board to halt the Dane County contract after things “got testy” during a six-month partnership in 2013 that worsened the workload of his part-time staff.

“I just got to a point where I couldn’t take it no more,” he says.

His experience prompted another western Wisconsin county to decline to work with Dane County, according to a veteran coroner from that county who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing work relationships.

“Barry made it absolutely awful for everybody in that department,” the coroner says.

Jeff Jansen served as interim chief medical examiner of Brown, Door and Oconto counties in 2015 as their offices transitioned to a contract with Dane County. 

He says every deputy medical examiner in those counties before the Dane County partnership — about 15 total, he estimated — left because of how Irmen and Rogalska treated them.

The departing deputies included Laurie Parisey of Oconto County, who says Irmen and Rogalska “treated us like we were stupid, northern wood ticks.”

“Dane County was trouble from day one — absolute nightmare,” says Parisey, who served as Oconto County’s coroner for 14 years, starting in 1992.

Irmen attributes the tension to disagreements over new policies that “required a higher level of forensic investigation as well as more accountability” and lost autonomy for staff in those counties. In a statement, Irmen says of county relationships, “There was no poor treatment.” 

“The investigative policies were not well received in many cases and this ultimately caused frustration with staff and in some cases heated discussion about the need for change,” he wrote.

‘I can’t deal with this anymore’

Kurt Karbusicky, a longtime Dane County death investigator and former chief deputy coroner, recalls the day in 2013 when he had enough. 

He had returned from a pair of gruesome death scenes — a car crash and a sexual assualt and homicide — when Irmen complained that Karbusicky hadn’t supplemented his teammate’s photos with his own. Irmen yelled at Karbusicky in front of colleagues, Karbusicky says.

“I felt disappointed. I felt humiliated. I felt belittled.” Karbusicky says.

He resigned and sought counseling for stress.

Karbusicky started as a Dane County deputy coroner in September 2000 when Coroner Ray Wosepka and John Stanley, his chief deputy, oversaw a “family environment” in which managers helped investigators handle a “crushing” caseload.

But as the office transitioned from an elected coroner’s office to an appointed medical examiner in 2011, Tranchida designated Irmen to manage investigators.

Even as Irmen demonstrated budgeting and technology skills, Karbusicky and others felt the office environment shift. Investigators absorbed more responsibilities, and staff felt chained to their jobs.

“It suddenly became very clear that Barry was a bully,” says Karbusicky. “And he very quickly created an incredibly toxic work environment.”

At one point, Karbusicky adds, Irmen and Tranchida told him to answer a county cell phone 24/7 and respond to supervisor emails within five minutes of receiving them.

Irmen denied yelling at Karbusicky, attributing office-wide tension to the more rigorous standards adopted during the transition from a coroner’s office.

Karbusicky recalls telling Tranchida and county board supervisors that Irmen’s behavior was “destroying the office.”

“I’ve always been willing to talk about it,” he says. “But nobody was willing to listen.”

Wisconsin Watch is the news arm of the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. 

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