Boulder County’s coroner, Emma Hall, is taking time away from the office following the results of an independent investigation that substantiated complaints from county employees about Hall. The investigation revealed a work environment of alleged favoritism, antagonism and micromanagement, according to documents obtained by Boulder Reporting Lab.
The Boulder County coroner is an elected official and is responsible for an array of duties, including autopsies, testifying in criminal proceedings and identifying bodies. The role is political, as candidates usually run with a party affiliation and sometimes deal with high-profile cases. Hall, 46, the coroner since 2011, was elected four times, most recently as a Democrat in November 2022.
The deputy coroner, Jeff Martin, is continuing to manage day-to-day operations and will assume Hall’s personnel and financial management decisions, according to an email Hall sent to her staff on Oct. 17. Her email said she is taking “some time away from the office to reassess my management of the office and how best I can lead going forward.” She said she plans to transition back to the office in early 2024.
Earlier this year, the Boulder County Human Resources Department hired Employment Matters LLC Flynn Investigations Group to investigate Hall in response to several staff allegations.
Boulder Reporting Lab obtained the Aug. 14 investigative report through an open records request, as well as related documents, including a letter from the Boulder County commissioners advising Hall on reshaping her role and a draft letter commissioners wanted Hall to send to her staff. Hall shared the letter she sent last week to her employees with Boulder Reporting Lab.
“Boulder County investigates reports by employees of sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation,” Julia Larsen, Boulder County’s human resources director, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “As a general matter, we do not disclose to the public when we are undertaking employment investigations.”
According to the documents, Employment Matters investigated 11 claims against Hall from the coroner’s office employees and substantiated five of them. In addition to the allegations of favoritism, antagonism and micromanagement toward staff, some of Hall’s staff said she displayed multiple “personas” at work and used their employee purchasing cards for office purchases, the report said.
“This investigation has established that the majority of the full-time BCCO [Boulder County Coroner’s Office] employees are dissatisfied with their work environment,” the executive summary of the report began.
“It is undisputed that Ms. Hall take[s] her role as Coroner seriously but her status as an elected official greatly influences how she manages the BCCO and its staff,” the report continued.
The coroner’s office employs 15 people, including Hall. Twelve participated in the investigation, and the report said that 10 of them raised similar concerns about Hall.
According to the investigation, county staff described Ms. Hall’s management style as a “‘my way or the highway’ approach.” The investigator wrote that a majority of employees “present their main concern as that as an elected official, Ms. Hall manages the BCCO in any way she sees fit, including firing BCCO employees at her discretion.” These employees, the investigation said, “report that her management and leadership of the BCCO office often creates anxiety among BCCO employees because they are constantly in fear for their jobs due to Ms. Hall’s history of removing or ‘pushing out’ employees.”
The report said eight employees have left the coroner’s office since 2020, a number confirmed by the human resources department.
“A majority of the BCCO staff report that they have considered leaving the BCCO because of Ms. Hall’s management,” the report said, “which would continue an already significant trend of turnover.”
In Hall’s statement attached to the report, she responded to each allegation, denying them or offering explanations for her behavior. She highlighted the challenges she has faced in her years as coroner. “In the last few years since 2020, I have managed 3 disasters; the Covid pandemic; a mass shooting and the most destructive fire in Boulder County’s history,” her statement said. “Each of these events has had a major impact on my staff, my team, my office, and myself, and ultimately the county, our citizens, and our community.”
In an email to Boulder Reporting Lab, Hall said, “I take any allegations of creating a culture of fear seriously and remain committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for all.”
Hall earned a salary of $131,701 as of December 2022, according to a document Boulder Reporting Lab received through a public records request. “Elected officials do not have vacation or medical leave banks,” Larsen, the director of Human Resources for the county, explained. “Their time off is at their own discretion.”
Hall told Boulder Reporting Lab that her time away from the office “is aimed at empowering the coroner staff and allowing me to focus on the high-level and externally facing work of the coroner.” She said in a separate email she is working remotely and her “responsibilities remain substantial.”
“I have dedicated extensive hours to my position, many times working nights, weekends and holidays,” she wrote. “And now I am committed to achieving a healthier work-life balance, while still maintaining my full-time duties.”
In the documents provided to Boulder Reporting Lab, the six unsubstantiated claims, including those related to sexual harassment, were redacted along with all statements related to them. In an email to Boulder Reporting Lab, the Boulder County CORA Team said that “portions of the report related to alleged sexual harassment by Emma Hall, an elected official, are not subject to release under C.R.S. 24-72-204(9) because the investigation did not conclude that Ms. Hall was culpable for any act of sexual harassment.”
Hall, who was born in Boulder County, was first elected in 2010 and is in her fourth consecutive term. Boulder County coroners used to be term-limited to three consecutive terms. In 2019, while in the midst of her third term, Hall proposed to county commissioners extending the number of consecutive terms the coroner could serve to five through a ballot question. At the time, she said she has “worked diligently to create a professional office that I believe has earned the trust and respect of its shareholders, law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, medical professionals and the community as a whole,” according to a report in the Daily Camera.
The year prior, a former employee of the coroner’s office sued Hall and the coroner’s office for almost $2.7 million for allegedly pushing her out of a job. Dawn B. Holmes, a forensic pathologist, alleged that Hall stopped scheduling her for autopsies after Holmes tried to label a death as a suicide and Hall wanted it deemed an accident.
County attorneys moved to dismiss the lawsuit but settled the claim for $15,000 “to avoid the costs associated with further litigation,” David Hughes, a deputy attorney for Boulder County who worked on the case, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
Boulder County residents approved the term-limit extension through a ballot question in 2019 and Hall secured her fourth consecutive term in 2022, uncontested.
Hall can run for a fifth and final term in 2026.
Specific allegations and findings
Favoritism toward certain employees
The investigator determined that it is “more likely than not” that Hall shows favoritism toward certain employees. In one example, an employee said, “Emma likes me and seeks me out to talk with her. I do not know why Emma likes me so much, and she has a bit of clinginess to her… She has kept me at the office for hours after work, talking about her personal life.”
“I don’t feel favoritism is an accurate description of my working relationships,” Hall said in her statement to the investigator.
Antagonism toward certain employees
Similarly, the investigator found it “more likely than not” that Hall displays antagonism toward certain staff.
According to one employee’s statement in the report, “Emma often exerts her positional power over me and others. … She has created a culture of fear because everyone knows that she can just fire employees if she chooses to do so as an elected official.”
“I have learned it is not the entire staff who complain, but there are voices who like to speak for everyone,” Hall said in her statement.
Micromanagement and using others’ P-cards
The investigator found it “undisputed” that Hall micromanaged her staff. In her statement in the report, Hall said, “I have been called a micromanager many times in my career and it is frustrating as it always has a negative connotation. Unfortunately, it is an easy label to put on managers who are hands on and detail oriented in their nature.”
The investigator similarly found it “undisputed” that Hall uses her employees’ purchase cards, or P-cards, for certain office purchases. A P-card is a way for the county employees to buy work necessities without using their own money and waiting for reimbursement. None of the witnesses accused Hall of using the cards for personal reasons or misusing county funds, the investigator wrote.
“Other employees have discussed their [discomfort] with Emma using their P-cards,” one employee quoted by the investigator said. “I cannot tell you what she has charged to my P-Card and my understanding of the P-Card rules are that I am responsible. This puts me and others in a tough situation.”
In Hall’s statement, she said that as an elected official, her P-card is more difficult to use than her staffs’ P-cards. She also said it’s easier to use an employee’s P-card because it’s the one already on file with retailers like Amazon.
“My P-card is the most problematic because I am elected and my P-Card purchases go through our finance director who takes a long time to approve, sometimes up to 6 months,” Hall said in her statement. “This is problematic as we cannot close out monthly as required and it makes it extremely difficult to reconcile our budget.”
The investigator also found that it was “undisputed” that Hall used multiple personas in recent months to distinguish between the various tasks she needed to handle.
According to Hall’s statement, she began using different names to create boundaries between her work and tasks that were previously managed by the office’s former administrative deputy, who left in May 2023. Initially, she used a different office for work that was once handled by the administrative deputy, but this expanded to using different names for different types of work. An employee statement in the report explained that “Coroner Hall” was her persona for coroner-related tasks, “Crystal” was her name for administrative deputy work, and she went by “Emma” for her own administrative tasks.
An employee statement in the report said, “She bought different costume glasses. When she is wearing rhinestone glasses, she is Crystal and in an administrative role. When she wears glasses with a skull on them, she is Coroner Hall. She has a third personality that is just Emma I guess.”
“Keeping the work separate in each office helped me to start compartmentalizing the tasks I should be doing as the coroner, and what the Admin Deputy should be doing,” Hall said in her statement.
“I find that Ms. Hall’s explanation for her unorthodox behavior is persuasive,” the investigator wrote. “Although it seems her behavior was unsettling to some BCCO employees, no employees reported that Ms. Hall’s actions harmed them or interfered with their work.”
Overall, the report found that none of the coroner employees questioned Hall’s worth ethic or her ability to develop effective policies and systems for the office. But it said that “the allegations raised in this investigation appear symptomatic of Ms. Hall’s failure to develop a cogent leadership style and management approach.”
County commissioners weigh in
In their letter to Hall after the report was submitted, Boulder County’s commissioners included recommendations that would help Hall address her staff’s concerns, ensure “fiscal stewardship” and lessen the risk of liability moving forward. Some of these recommendations included Hall continuing to “enhance” her “interpersonal and leadership skills,” as well as becoming more familiar with county policies.
The commissioners also encouraged Hall to focus on “external-facing responsibilities” that wouldn’t require “any need for your direct office presence or staff interface at this time.”
“Although we have no management authority over Coroner Hall, who ultimately only answers to the voters, we urged Coroner Hall to make changes that would address her staff’s concerns,” the three commissioners — Claire Levy, Marta Loachamin and Ashley Stolzmann — said in a statement to Boulder Reporting Lab.
“We are hopeful, for the sake of Coroner’s Office staff, that Coroner Hall implements those changes. In keeping with county values, we believe every employee of every elected office has the right to feel valued, respected, and supported in the workplace.”
In an email, Hall told Boulder Reporting Lab, “I strongly believe that every challenge presents an opportunity for personal growth and positive change. I am dedicated to my continual development as an individual, a coroner, and a leader for the foreseeable future, and I remain committed to serving the community as coroner.”
The letter she sent her staff on Oct. 17 concluded, “I look forward to a bright future for the Coroner’s Office.”