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The seal of the Office of the Medical Examiner for Massachusetts.
The seal of the Office of the Medical Examiner for Massachusetts.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

A top official at the taxpayer-funded agency responsible for investigating violent and unexplained deaths asserts she has a master's degree from Northeastern University, but the school says it has no record of her earning a graduate degree.

Lisa Riccobene, who's worked in the state's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner since 2005 and was recently chosen to serve as its $112,000-a-year chief of staff, said she earned the degree in psychology, according to information provided by the agency.

The university's Office of the Registrar, however, has no record of that, raising major questions about a key member of the long-embattled agency.

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Neither Dr. Mindy J. Hull, the state's chief medical examiner who promoted Riccobene, nor officials at the Executive Office of Public Safety, who oversee the agency, have answered repeated questions since Friday about Riccobene, how her background was vetted, or whether it has verified that she has the degree.

"Our human resources department is looking into this matter," said Felix Browne, an agency spokesman. "This is a personnel issue, and we will provide an update at the appropriate time."

Browne declined to say what Riccobene's current employment status is with the agency.

Dr. Mindy J. Hull, the state’s chief medical examiner who promoted Lisa Riccobene.
Dr. Mindy J. Hull, the state’s chief medical examiner who promoted Lisa Riccobene.

Hull, tapped last fall as the office's new $375,000-a-year chief, elevated Riccobene as the office's director of administrative services and her chief of staff earlier this year, according to payroll records. In that position, Riccobene directly oversees 17 people and is one of three people who fall directly under Hull in the hierarchy of the 93-person office.

Hull's office last week refused a Globe request for Riccobene's resume, but an agency spokesman, via phone, provided her educational credentials, saying she earned an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and a master's in psychology, both from Northeastern.

The school confirmed Riccobene earned the bachelor's degree after graduating in September 1988, but it said it had no records of awarding her a graduate degree, under her current name or a previous married name.

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Riccobene has not responded to multiple requests for comment since last week. A woman who answered a personal phone number listed for her Tuesday said she was unavailable.

Riccobene has helped oversee an office that, amid a rising caseload, is working to regain its national accreditation and has faced criticism over a backlog processing death certificates and autopsy reports.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report in August faulting the office for regularly failing to process toxicology examinations or to complete autopsy reports on time between 2013 and 2016. The delays, she said, could slow court cases and prevent families from receiving insurance proceeds when needed.

At the time, state officials said the findings didn't address reforms they've since put in place, but the office is still struggling to finish reports on time, according to its most recent annual report released in February.

The National Association of Medical Examiners requires that medical examiners complete autopsy reports within 90 days. But in the nearly two years between October 2015, when the office implemented a new organizational approach, and September 2017, the agency processed just 58 percent of autopsies and 78 percent of death certificates in the 90-day time frame, according to the report.

The agency has attributed the struggles to an ever-increasing caseload, which jumped more than 10 percent between fiscal years 2015 and 2017, to 5,920 cases. The number was on pace to top 6,000 through the first half of this fiscal year.

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The office holds a "provisional" accreditation from the association, but it is still working toward full accreditation, according to state officials.

It's also faced heat over its handling of infant deaths. In three cases involving babies in recent years, the office first ruled that their deaths were the result of abusive head trauma, triggering criminal charges. Then, many months later, the medical examiners revised the manner of death to "undetermined" — following the intervention of defense attorneys.


Reach Matt Stout at matt.stout@globe.com.