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"Read cover to cover. Never bound by the truth."
-- Motto of Joe Scarborough's paper, the Florida Sun
A Shocking Discovery. Juanita and Andreas Bergmann had an appointment at 8:00 AM, July 20th, at the Fort Walton Beach office of Congressman Joe Scarborough (R-FL). The appointment had been arranged by the Congressman's young aide, Lori Klausutis, and Mr. and Mrs. Bergmann thought they were going to meet with the Congressman to facilitate Mr. Bergmann's application for a green card. Instead, they found the body of Lori Klausutis.
Lori Klausutis, 28, had been the picture of health and vitality, an avid runner who ran five miles a day. She was highly regarded by friends and co-workers who called her "Little Miss Mary Sunshine." She was the immediate past president of the Emerald Coast Young Republicans.
Klausutis had worked for Scarborough since May, 1999. She was based at the Congressman's Fort Walton Beach office and must have played a major role in Scarborough's efforts to aid George W. Bush in grasping the presidency. Those efforts by northwest Florida Republicans -- had they been on the level -- would have included enough miracles in Escambia County alone to qualify Scarborough for beatification (see articles by Lukasiak and by Jordan and Dawshed at Online Journal). Miguel ("Mick") Serrano, Scarborough's press secretary, said Klausutis' duties as constituent services coordinator included handling appointments and walk-in visits from people who wanted to contact Scarborough about specific issues. "I know Lori will be missed by the thousands of citizens who regularly contact my office to seek assistance with a variety of problems", Scarborough said in a statement issued several hours after her body was found.
" 'Would she have died of the arrhythmia she had when she was falling? Probably so,' he [Associate Medical Examiner Michael E. Berkland] said. 'I think she had an arrhythmia that was not allowing oxygenated blood to go to her brain.' " Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News, August 7, 2001
"The immediate cause of death was ruled an acute subdural hematoma, or a blood clot, that resulted from a closed head trauma sustained in a fall". -- Derek Pivnick, Pensacola News Journal, August 7, 2001
" 'We know for a fact she wasn't whacked in the head because of the nature of the injury,' Berkland said... Cardiac arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythms, halted Klausutis' heart and stopped her breathing, he said." --Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News, August 29, 2001
Even before the autopsy, police assured the public that "there was no sign of foul play and no trauma to the body". During the following weeks the medical examiner, Dr. Michael Berkland, released conflicting statements to the local press, eventually reaching this conclusion: he speculated that Lori had suffered an abnormal heart rhythm, due to a previously undiagnosed heart condition, causing her to fall, striking her head against a desk. This caused a blow to the head severe enough to cause death.
Speaking Ill of the Dead. On the morning of July 20th, within three hours after Lori's body was found and even before her family had been notified, the ABC affiliate in Pensacola (WEAR, channel 3) published on their website "Scarborough's office says Klausutis had a history of health problems....they believe she died Thursday afternoon." When queried on WEAR's source, Tom Wahl, an assignments editor stated that he "heard a representative from the D.C. office who was in town mention 'a history of health problems'". Anna Dobbins of WEAR stated that the station had received a phone call around 11:00 AM on July 20th from Joe Scarborough himself, stating that "a young woman had died in his office and that she had a complicated medical history, specifically surrounding 'stroke and epilepsy'". About a week later, according to Dobbins, Scarborough's press secretary Miguel Serrano called back to ask that they stop reporting the "complicated health history" part of the story. Joe, he said, had spoken in error. When confronted with statements by WEAR staff that her boss had been passing on details of Klausutis' health, Scarborough staffer Lois Hoyt called it a "lie" that Scarborough had done so.
WGTX radio, 1280AM, reported on their web site "[Scarborough] staff members told WGTX that Klausutis was suffering with ill health for some time". When queried, Ron Kelly, news director, stated that not long before Lori's death, they'd done an on the air interview with Joe on his upcoming resignation. He also said he had spoken with Miguel Serrano who told him that Lori suffered from ill health.
An associate, R. S. Miller, tells us that she then called Serrano back and told him that the reporters were standing by their stories regarding the nature and the timing of the release of the reports from Scarborough's office and, indeed, Scarborough himself. Serrano refused to confirm or deny whether he had even spoken to these newspersons, and he would not comment on whether the newspersons were lying or even mistaken. He became testy when asked about Lois Hoyt's claim that the news stations were lying and asked "Isn't there anything else you could be doing?"
Serrano seemed supremely indifferent to the notion that telling the truth to the media is important -- a strange attitude for a former Justice Department attorney and presumably an officer of the court. But this is the post-Kenneth Starr era; perhaps he's accustomed to a media that also isn't bound by the truth. When told that Hoyt called it an outright lie that Scarborough had told WEAR that Klausutis had suffered stroke and epilepsy, Anna Dobbins snapped, "What's the story here? Politicians always backtrack."
The story, Ms. Dobbins, is that Lori's family deeply resented the tales of ill health. Norm Klausutis, Lori's father-in-law, sent a scathing letter to the Northwest Florida Daily News denying that she had health problems, and members of Lori's immediate family made it clear to us that although she had been in a very serious automobile accident many years earlier, she had suffered no health problems thereafter. None. Scarborough and his staff appear to have engaged in outright fabrication of non-existent health problems, presumably to minimize press scrutiny -- and paining the family. Of course, they wouldn't have succeeded in causing the family anguish had the press been more inquisitive about how Scarborough happened to have confidential medical information on Klausutis and why he was in such a rush to disseminate it. Furthermore, as we wrote in our previous article, rumors that Lori Klausutis had committed suicide circulated. We would hope, however wanly, that these rumors did not also originate from Congressman Scarborough's office.
THE MERRY ADVENTURES OF DR. MICHAEL BERKLAND
1996---fired as contract Medical Examiner in Jackson County for falsely stating that he had sectioned several brain specimens.
Berkland appealed and the circut court affirmed the revocation on 11/1/99. THERE WAS NO FURTHER APPEAL.
How a man with such an egregious record could be placed in charge of a death as suspicious as that of Lori Klausutis is a mystery. However, it may be less puzzling when one examines the degree to which the Medical Examiner's office has been politicized. According to Federal Elections Commission records accesses through The Center for Responsive Politics, between January and October 1994, Berkland's immediate supervisor, Dr. Gary Cumberland, gave $3000 to Joe Scarborough's election campaign. Mrs. Cumberland gave $2,607. Both donations, which are apparently hard money donations, would seem to exceed legal federal limits. Dr. Cumberland has since given $2000 to Scarborough. A suspicious mind might ask whether those contributions were bribes or kickbacks.
One wonders how far up the ladder this casual attitude toward ethics and the law extends. Berkland was apparently allowed to continue to work as Medical Examiner under a "letter of guidance" from the Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Stephen Nelson, currently the Chairman of the Medical Examiners Commission, stated that he had recommended the suspension of Berkland but has apparently never inquired further of the matter. When notified that a case by Berkland had been challenged in Missouri, Nelson dismissed any concern about Berkland, saying,
"I also believe that the failure of the Missouri Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction because of Dr. Berkland speaks volumes as well. The Court of Appeals had the entire trial transcript to work from. Neither I nor you have that luxury, and they didn't feel that what Dr. Berkland said or didn't say was sufficient for the defendant to be granted a new trial. With the information I have available, I certainly won't second-guess the Missouri Court of Appeals."
But Nelson is not a member of the Supreme Court of Missouri, faced with the duty of deciding whether a case should be overturned. He's the physician charged with oversight of all Florida Medical Examiners. He has a duty to guard against even the appearance of impropriety, since -- as the state of Missouri is learning -- even the appearance of impropriety can imperil convictions in criminal cases. The Medical Examiner is often the key witness in a criminal trial. His testimony must be absolutely unimpeachable.
A very odd way to die. In the Klausutis case, Berkland's conclusions can -- and should -- be challenged. As described in the sidebar, he speculated that Klausutis' prolapsed mitral valve led to a severe arrhythmia, which in turn caused her to faint. When she fainted, her head struck a desk, cracking her skull. Further damage to the brain ensued. Bleeding into the skull, forming a subdural hematoma, caused death.This scenario is... well, not exactly bound by the truth. As explained in the second sidebar, it is extremely rare for a prolapsed mitral valve to lead to severe arrhythmia. A minor fall by a young woman is not expected to lead to a broken skull, nor is a minor fall likely to cause injury remote from the site of impact, nor is a head injury of this kind expected to lead to death. Berkland has, so to speak, proposed a four-bank carom, any one of which bounces is improbable enough, and that's even before we get to whether Klausutis was close enough to the desk to have hit it or why she was found face up. As if all this were not enough, Juanita Bergmann -- a trained nurse -- is quoted as having said that Klausutis had "obviously had a seizure", while Norm Klausutis categorically denied that she had ever had a seizure. A reasonable question to ask is whether something or someone gave her a seizure. Keep in mind that when a medical examiner creates a scenario about the manner in which certain injuries might have occurred, it does not exclude other scenarios which are equally plausible.
We have no idea what killed Lori Klausutis, and we would suggest that neither does Michael Berkland. Berkland's findings have little enough credibility and his speculations about the sequence that led to Klausutis' death have none. He gave contradictory statements to the press in this case, including one admitted lie. He has given false statements under oath in Missouri, leading to the revocation of his license. He failed to advise Florida of action pending against him in Missouri, leading to his suspension in Florida. His official Physician Profile contains false information, and he may well have lied under oath to the state of Florida as well. His medical pronouncements are not consistent with the literature.
Keeping the lid on. The big question is why the medical and political apparatus of north Florida -- and the national media -- are so intent on protecting Berkland. Sergeant Pond of Fort Walton Beach Police actually hung up on Miller, saying Klausutis' death was "nobody's business"; Pond's supervisor, Captain Bishop wouldn't talk to Miller, and the Chief of Police, was no more helpful. Northwest Florida Daily News reporter Tom McLaughlin told one of our associates, "Suffice it to say that I like Dr. Berkland very much as a person and greatly respect his work as Medical Examiner." When asked to comment on the massive contradictions between media accounts of Klausutis' death, McLaughlin scornfully retorted, "Comment on what? You're [sic] ability to cut and paste?"
We understand that CNN has taken to shouting at people who call up and suggest that this is a story they might want to cover. Inside Politics advised a woman who had written to inquire as to why they weren't covering this story, "We are aware of the Scarborough story. We haven't reported it because there doesn't seem to be any connection to Congressman Scarborough (except that the aide died in his office.) The police haven't made any charges against Scarborough... so we'd just be creating a news story. We'll let the local news networks and newspapers investigate the story along with the police. If anything comes up that indicates the Congressman had any involvement in the aide's death... we'll report it."
Go down the list of criteria, compare it to how CNN has handled the Condit case, and ask if there's not a double standard in operation. Condit may have lied to the media; Scarborough surely did. Chandra Levy, Condit's former aide is missing; Klausutis is dead. Condit tried to cover up an affair, including the highly criminal act of secretly disposing of a watch case. In the Klausutis case, the cover-up in progress so far includes the inexplicable retention of an unqualified medical examiner and probably illegal political contributions. But worst of all is the readiness of the culture of lies to shovel dirt both metaphorical and literal over a woman who died too young, and in a manner still unexplained.
Afterword. We have been able to answer a number of questions that we raised earlier in this case, but the sourcing leaves much to be desired. From press accounts, Tiffany Bates, a Scarborough aide in Pensacola, spoke to Klausutis (presumably by telephone) at about 5PM on July 19th; according to unknown sources, Klausutis told Bates that she wasn't feeling well. Or was it that, as she supposedly told the mailman and an unnamed other person, that she "was anxious and did not feel quite right"? One would think that journalists could get their stories straight. We have been told that Lori Klausutis was not pregnant and that no drugs were found in the toxicology screen. We have no reason to believe that there has been a thorough review of Klausutis' medical records to determine the extent of the injury she sustained as a teenager.
If Dr. Berkland's estimate of the time of death is correct, Klausutis died just after the office closed, at about 5 PM. Fifteen hours passed while her body lay on the floor of Congressman Scarborough's office. Yet he also told us that she would continued breathing long after the heart stopped, since there was a "foam cone" around the mouth. He told us that there was a visible contusion to the right temple, which contradicts Juanita Bergmann's memory of Lori Klausutis' appearance. He also said that there was a large hematoma and a fracture of the temporal coronal suture. Neither the family not the police were able to locate Lori's husband, T. J. Klausutis, until late on the afternoon of July 20th. Berkland says, "We knew where he was, in Arlington, Virginia, but he was at a meeting."
Don Graham, the owner of D-train, the company that takes care of building security, originally stated that he recorded in his log that at 11:30 -12 PM, he found the doors to Scarborough's office locked, the lights off and no cars in the lot. At a later date, he changed his claim and now says he "may have missed" checking the doors. Employees of the International House of Pancakes reportedly said that Klausutis' car was in the lot and the lights of the office on at 5:00 AM.
Juanita Bergmann stated that when they arrived sometime prior to 8:00 A.M. to have breakfast at the International House of Pancakes, the lights were off and that when they arrived at Scarborough's office shortly after 8:00 A.M., they found the door unlocked.
According the police log, Dr. Berkland arrived at the scene of death two hours later, at 10:06 AM. Ten persons from the police and fire departments and from the Medical Examiner's office are recorded as having entered the area, Suite 21 in the interval between discovery of the body and Berkland's arrival. It is difficult to believe that the scene was entirely undisturbed.
"Despite weeks of furious speculation on the Internet, it's likely that Lori Klausutis died exactly the way investigators say she died: She collapsed because of a heart condition, struck her head and suffered a fatal blood clot."
-- Editorial, Northwest Florida Daily News, 9/2/01
The Northwest Florida Daily News called the release of the Medical Examiner's report and its unsustainable conclusions "an untidy wrap-up." We'd be apt to speculate that wraps on this case are just beginning to come off.
Acknowledgements. We would like to thank the incomparable R. S. Miller and S. Stanley for their diligence and good humor. Thanks also go to Dr. Michael Berkland for being forthcoming. We appreciate that this is a difficult situation for him and want to emphasize that he was gracious with his time in answering our many questions.
Jonathan A. Drezner, MD, Sudden cardiac death in young athletes, Postgraduate Medicine, 108: 5(Oct ) (2000)
Mulumudi and Vivekananthan, "Mysteries of Mitral Valve Prolapse" POST GRADUATE MEDICINE, VOL 110/NO. 2/AUG. 2001