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4 controversial new appointees pulled from Missouri funeral board

(Mali Maeder | Pexels)
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 2:10 PM CST
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(AP) - The appointments of four new members to a state board that oversees funeral homes are being withdrawn amid an inspection controversy that has prompted one lawmaker to introduce legislation that would shift some duties away from the board.

Gov. Mike Parson appointed the new members in September amid complaints that the previous members beefed up their inspections too much by requiring investigators to take more pictures after one crematory was found in such disrepair that body fluids were leaking onto the floor.

But Republican Senate President Pro Dave Schatz said Wednesday that senators determined that a couple of the appointees didn’t appear to meet the qualifications to serve on the board. He said Parson’s office then decided to withdraw all four of the appointees.

“They felt like it was just best to start afresh with the process,” he told The Associated Press.

Republican State Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin has called for changes since Parson’s new appointees met for the first time in October. During the meeting, the new appointees fired Lori Hayes, the executive director of the board, and Randall Jennings, who oversaw financial examinations of sellers of prearranged funeral services, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the AP.

Jennings was wrapping up his second round of financial examinations, with some of the largest providers still left to go. The examinations were required under a 2009 law that was passed in response to the financial collapse of a company that had promised to deliver more than $650 million worth of funeral services.

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.

O’Laughlin described the situation as a “mess” and has since introduced a bill that would shift the responsibility of financially examining sellers of prearranged funeral services away from the board and to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“It is at least an attempt to be sure that pre-need funeral plans are being monitored appropriately and that the money is being kept secure,” she said. “And I’m not trying to insinuate that it’s not, but I’m not confident that it is either.”

Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment. She said in a previous email that the appointments were made because three members had been serving on expired terms; the fourth seat was open.

She said the Republican 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.

But Sheila Solon, the newly appointed acting director of the Division of Professional Registration, was heard saying at a March 2021 meeting that investigators must stop taking photographs of the funeral homes they inspect, unless they have detected a violation that needs to be documented.

“We have been receiving complaints out of the governor’s office on this process,” Solon said in a recording of the meeting, which also was obtained through a records request. She described the pictures as “intrusive and an overreach of government.”

Schatz said Solon’s appointment was not being withdrawn. But O’Laughlin said she also had concerns about Solon’s appointment and wouldn’t vote for her, noting, “I don’t feel good about what’s happened here.”

Solon’s division is part of the Missouri Department of Commerce & Insurance. Lori Croy, a spokeswoman for the agency, declined to comment.

The Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, a trade group, who complained to the board about the pictures, said in a post to its members that the decision to withdraw the new appointees was not unexpected.

“Neither Governors nor the Senate leadership ever like having any contentious issues surrounding the volunteer board appointments,” the post said.

None of the appointees — Greg Russell, Kasey Griffin, Courtney McGhee and Victoria Anne Schwinke — immediately returned a phone message seeking comment on Thursday.

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