MISSOULA -- Gov. Steve Bullock expected the head medical examiner to handle problems with his subordinate when the governor was attorney general, officials said Tuesday.
In a phone call, the governor's staff described the relationship between the head medical examiner and the associate as "contentious."
Communications director Dave Parker also noted former medical examiner Gary Dale had full authority to resolve problems with his associate.
"The person who has the conflict could actually eliminate the problem if he felt it was urgent enough to do so, but that didn't happen," Parker said.
Former head medical examiner Dale resigned in April; his successor, Walter Kemp, left July 2.
Dale had raised concerns about associate medical examiner Thomas Bennett's autopsies on infants, and both head medical examiners "un-appointed" the associate upon their departures.
In his resignation letter, Kemp noted he had been forced to reappoint Bennett after Dale left.
On Tuesday, Dale would not directly address the reason he didn't remove Bennett's authority much earlier. Records show he repeatedly ordered Bennett to refrain from doing infant autopsies for years, due to the associate's previous problematic cases in Iowa, including two wrongful convictions.
However, Dale provided in response an excerpt from a February 2015 letter he sent to Bennett and copied to Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
"When I began as state medical examiner in 1990, eastern and central Montana had eight associate medical examiners," Dale wrote. "Now, you (Bennett) alone serve in this capacity.
"Pursuant to section 44-3-211, MCA, private fee-for-service associate medical examiners are appointed by the state medical examiner. If problems arise, the state medical examiner has the statutory authority to terminate an associate medical examiner appointment.
"However, the state medical examiner is not empowered to hire deputy medical examiners as replacements or provide the facilities in which to work. Pursuant to sections 44-3-102 and 44-3-106, MCA, that authority is given to the attorney general."
The state crime lab where Dale and Kemp worked is in Missoula. Bennett had done autopsies for county coroners in eastern Montana.
30 infant autopsies
Records show Bennett conducted some 30 infant autopsies for coroners while Bullock was attorney general.
Bullock agreed with Dale's mandate to the associate, but he did not enforce the prohibition.
The governor's deputy chief of staff worked for Bullock when he was attorney general. On Tuesday, Ali Bovingdon said Bullock knew of the concerns Dale had raised.
However, she also said the attorney general managed seven divisions, and he trusted his managers to evaluate problems and take appropriate action.
Dale's concerns appeared to stem from a personality conflict and had not escalated to a level that required the attorney general's direct involvement, she said.
Also, Bovingdon said Dale did not rescind Bennett's appointment, as he was empowered to do.
"There were no complaints about Dr. Bennett's work product that we were hearing from county attorneys or county coroners across the state," Bovingdon said.
In that context, she said, it would have been inappropriate for the attorney general to step over the medical examiner, especially when Dale had authority to act.
Parker reiterated the reason Bullock did not insert himself in the situation.
"It's not the attorney general's problem to solve personal problems. If there had been a work product problem, of course," Parker said.
Dale's concerns erupted last September, under current Attorney General Fox, and the reason is not clear.
Kemp, who resigned in July shortly after Dale did, could not be reached to identify the entity or situation that required him to reappoint Bennett after he took the post of head examiner earlier this year.
After the resignations, Fox changed the structure of the medical examiner's office. Going forward, a deputy in eastern Montana will be a state employee who reports to the head medical examiner.
In a statement, John Barnes, communications director for the AG, said the agency acted swiftly and appropriately.
"As soon as we were made aware of Dr. Gary Dale's concerns, we took immediate action to understand the full scope of his concerns and were in ongoing communication with him. Our evaluation was thorough, professional, and fair to all parties involved. It was a complicated issue, and we are in the process of resolving it," Barnes said.