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Missouri funeral home board ousted amid inspections conflict

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Posted at 9:54 AM, Dec 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-10 10:54:27-05

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Gov. Mike Parson's office appointed four new members to a state board that oversees funeral homes amid complaints that the previous members had beefed up inspections too much after one crematory was found in such disrepair that body fluids were leaking onto the floor.

In their first meeting in October, Parson's new appointees fired two top officials, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press. An attorney for the board had been terminated months earlier and an inspector was fired in the days that followed, leaving the board with very few experienced employees.

The firings came as board members openly discussed suing the state to settle a dispute over whether they could hire and retain their own staff to conduct inspections.

The six-member Board of Embalmers & Funeral Directors had strengthened inspections last fall after they found that the previous system, which relied partially on nonspecialist inspectors, had failed to cite homes for problems that included record-keeping snags and fire hazards. But a state official with authority over the board ordered the members to halt some of their efforts.

During the meeting on Oct. 14, the new appointees followed a script as they fired Lori Hayes, the executive director of the board, and Randall Jennings, who oversaw financial examinations of sellers of prearranged funeral services.

"I thought it was bizarre, to put it mildly," said Republican State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, who was listening, and had her staff reached out to the governor's office to express concerns.

Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said in an email that the governor's office had received complaints from funeral home owners about the board and investigators but didn't seek more lenient inspections because of them. She also said the office wasn't behind the script.

Jones said the appointments, which were announced in September, were made because three members had been serving on expired terms; the fourth seat was open.

The controversy centered around the Central Investigative Unit, which helps conduct inspections for dozens of state oversight boards that regulate everything from real estate agents to social workers. The funeral board relied on the unit because it only had one in-house inspector with funeral home experience, Kelly Sedgwick.

Hayes said the unit investigators had inspected Sweeney-Phillips & Holdren Funeral Home in Warrensburg for "years and years." But she said that when Sedgwick went there last year, she discovered a "disaster."

One court document said that the "crematory has human fat drippings/liquid on the floor" and was "an immediate fire hazard." Other court filings accused it of licensing issues. A judge in January ordered the funeral home to temporarily cease operations after the board took it to court.

James Anderson, an attorney for the funeral home, wrote in a court filing the next month that it had fully repaired the cremation chamber and passed an inspection. The case was dismissed late last month. Anderson declined to comment when reached by the AP.

Jones said the governor wasn't aware of the situation at Sweeney-Phillips & Holdren.

Hayes said investigators with the Central Investigative Unit also were missing other things, "from records to disgusting prep rooms." That led the board in September 2020 to start requiring investigators with the unit to take pictures during their inspections to ensure they weren't missing things.

Six months later in March, Sheila Solon, the newly appointed acting director of the Division of Professional Registration, which oversees the board, told the members that the photographic inspections must stop, said Bill Stalter, an attorney who writes a blog on funeral homes and follows the industry, in an interview. He added that Solon was "very clear that her instructions are coming directly from the governor."

Jones, Parson's spokeswoman, said the orders weren't from the governor.

Lori Croy, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Commerce & Insurance, said Solon and the division she leads have no comment. An attorney for the division said it couldn't immediately provide a recording of the March meeting because of technical issues.

The board pushed to hire a second in-house inspector with funeral home experience but were told they couldn't. Then Solon transferred Sedgwick to the Central Investigative Unit, where she would conduct investigations for other boards, not just funeral homes, despite objections from the board. Sedgwick alleged it was a way to keep her from writing violations.

In a July meeting, board members debated whether to seek an attorney general's opinion so they could get clarity on their authority and budget powers. The board also decided to put the brakes on all routine inspections while they sorted everything out, Stalter said.

Andrew Moore, one of just two people not swept off the board in the wave of appointments, said some of the members also began discussing pooling their money together to sue the governor and other officials because they believed state statutes allowed them to keep Sedgwick and hire another inspector. But they never filed anything, and the discussions fizzled when Parson appointed new board members.

Don Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, a trade group, who complained to the board about the pictures, said that if you discuss hiring outside legal counsel to sue the state and can't figure out what's going to happen, "you haven't been around Jefferson City very long."

As the October meeting began, Moore read aloud the script, which he said had been leaked to him by one of the newly appointed board members.

In a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP through an open records request, Moore grills new members Greg Russell, Kasey Griffin, Courtney McGhee and Victoria Anne Schwinke about where the script came from, but none of them answered his questions. They said they hadn't met in advance to discuss the script, which he provided to the AP.

Moore, who was ousted as chairman during the meeting, said it was "absolutely amazing" that the new members then followed the script after he had read it.

Complaints have since been filed with the board against Moore and Hayes - one bearing the signature of Russell, the board's new chairman - alleging they maneuvered together during the meeting to allow Moore to take pictures of Russell's "personal notes." The complaints, which they provided to the AP, seek discipline against their funeral director's licenses and Moore's removal from the board.

None of the new board members immediately returned a phone message from the AP seeking comment.

"Pretty much what it comes down to is the funeral home industry in the state of Missouri can do whatever it wants to," said Sedgwick, who was fired after the meeting and plans to sue.

Moore and his wife also were charged criminally in November with receiving stolen property. Moore says the case has nothing to do with his role on the board and instead stems from a long-simmering dispute with his former funeral home business partners.