The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation of a division of Legacy Health, looking into allegations that the Portland hospital system improperly obtained dead bodies for scientific research, didn’t keep full medical records on the cadavers, and may not have informed families that their relatives’ remains had been donated to science.
“I can confirm that we are looking into that particular body donation program at Legacy Research Institute,” says David Porter, a spokesman for the FBI’s Detroit office. “That’s all I can say.”
When two whistle-blowers raised questions this spring about the body donation program at Legacy Research Institute, Legacy eliminated their jobs, according to interviews and records reviewed by WW.
Whistle-blowers have alleged that Legacy placed employees and medical students at risk of exposure to disease from cadavers and may have failed to obtain consent from families to use their relatives’ corpses.
Documents obtained by WW show that after a federal grand jury in May subpoenaed records from Legacy, an employee claimed to have been told to prepare records for shredding.
An FBI agent who has recently investigated body donation centers in Michigan and Arizona visited Portland this month to conduct interviews at Legacy Research Institute and with its supplier of cadavers.
A Legacy official acknowledges his company received a subpoena.
“When Legacy Health received the United States Grand Jury subpoena out of the Eastern District of Michigan, it fully cooperated with the request,” says Legacy spokesman Brian Terrett. “The grand jury subpoena also requested that Legacy not share any information related to their investigation. Given this request, there is nothing else we can offer to say.”
Legacy Health is the largest Portland-area hospital system. Last year, its research wing, located in the Lloyd District, began a body donation program to obtain cadavers for surgical training.
“We also use cadavers to research techniques and tools that are used to save lives,” Legacy Health states on its website. “Countless people live better lives because of the work we do and through the donations to the program.”
People familiar with the investigation tell WW that Legacy had difficulty in quickly obtaining bodies from OHSU, and wanted to find a cheaper alternative. In 2013, Legacy Research Institute partnered with a body-intake service called Cascade Decedent Care, which has the same owner as local funeral home Crown Memorial Centers.
Legacy’s body donation program obtained fewer than two dozen cadavers during its first year. Sources say the federal investigation began after Legacy employees raised questions about whether the body donation program was conducting proper screenings of the cadavers for blood-borne diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C, and whether next-of-kin had given consent.
A May 8 federal subpoena demanded that Legacy hand over “complete donor files to include death certificates, serology reports, medical and social histories, procurement information for harvested tissues, organs, or body parts, and body or body part use and distribution information.”
The subpoena also required Legacy to produce all correspondence with Crown Memorial Centers, which operates funeral homes in Portland and Tualatin, and contact information for the families of all body donors.
An email WW obtained shows a Legacy employee told the hospital system’s risk management department May 12 that a supervisor “gave me paperwork to shred from the body donation files.”
Legacy’s human resources department responded to concerns about shredding by telling the whistle-blower the files were duplicates. Two months later, Legacy eliminated that employee’s job.
No state or federal agency monitors body donation programs at Oregon hospitals, says Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority.
Ernest V. Nelson, a California man who served 30 months in prison for grand theft, embezzlement and tax fraud after pleading guilty in 2009 to selling body parts donated to UCLA’s medical school, says the FBI is targeting suspicious body donation programs up and down the West Coast.
“You should never have a funeral home involved in donations,” he tells WW. “It’s too easy to cross the line.”
Randy Tjaden, who owns Cascade Decedent Care and Crown Memorial Centers, says an FBI agent interviewed him in Portland this month.
Tjaden says Cascade has also been served a subpoena but has done nothing wrong.
“As far as I know, everything is just fine,” Tjaden says of his meeting with the FBI agent. “He didn’t say anything to me like, ‘Stop doing this.’”
Steven Carmichael, body donation director for Western University of Health Sciences, says Tjaden’s company provides cadavers to Legacy, OSHU and Western.
“Crown is a very reputable company on a funeral level,” Carmichael says. “The director is an honest man.”
WW staff writers Matthew Korfhage and Kate Willson contributed to this story.