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Medical Examiner Valerie Rao Announces Retirement After Difficult Tenure

Kevin Meerschaert
Medical Examiner Valerie Rao preps for an appearance on WJCT's First Coast Connect in February 2017.

Valerie Rao, the embattled medical examiner who has held onto her job in the face of criticism for the last five years, announced she would retire in the summer.

Rao wrote to Gov. Rick Scott last Wednesday, announcing her decision: “After an interesting and challenging career of 37 years, most of them (35 years) serving the citizens of the State of Florida, I will be retiring as of the 6th of July 2018.”

She said she wanted to spend more time with her family, but she cited pride in getting the office accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson will appoint her interim successor before the state Medical Examiners Commission can convene a search committee.

Rao’s tenure as medical examiner was marred by a rough start. She was appointed by former State Attorney Angela Corey to lead the office after the previous medical examiner stepped down at the end of 2010 while suffering from memory issues, something that was not revealed to defense attorneys at the time.

Pretty soon after, the city started receiving complaints about Rao. In the summer of 2012, then-Mayor Alvin Brown’s office began looking into the problems, even considering privatization. By the next year, the city asked the state to investigate, citing poor working conditions, high turnover, offensive statements and unsanitary practices.

That investigation found a 73 percent turnover rate with all but one of the resignations specifically saying they left because of conflicts.

Rao, ironically, is retiring before she was ever re-appointed to the position. She was up for re-appointment in 2012, but Gov. Scott never re-appointed her. Instead, he said he wanted more names to consider. Eventually, in 2014, the Medical Examiner’s Commission recommended two more candidates, but both ended up accepting other jobs. Since 2012, Rao has served as interim medical examiner.

Even before her time in Jacksonville, Rao faced complaints. She failed to be re-appointed in Hernando County in 2003 after the sheriff there complained about her administrative ability. She then became a medical examiner in Missouri before resigning a year later when she was criticized for performing an excessive number of autopsies. A month later, she was hired in Jacksonville.

The complaints seemed to subside after the city gave Rao more administrative help. Rao’s office was able to achieve accreditation and to standardize its policies and procedures.

But the last two years have seen an enormous spike in overdose deaths, which has hampered medical examiners across the state. The District 4 Medical Examiners Office oversees Clay, Duval, Nassau, Columbia and Hamilton counties. Recently, Rao has talked about not having enough space in the morgue to fit all the bodies.

Rao, in her resignation letter, thanked the administrations of Scott and Mayor Lenny Curry for providing financial support and renovating the office.