By August 2, 2017 Read More →

Funeral board members quit, say Gatens-Harding penalty ‘slap on the hand’

By CARLEE LAMMERS

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three members of the board that oversees West Virginia’s funeral directors abruptly resigned this month, citing the board’s decision to only temporarily suspend the license of a Putnam County funeral home owner who cashed in more than 100 prearranged funeral plans for people who hadn’t died.

On July 14, the seven-member West Virginia Board of Funeral Examiners met to discuss a proposed settlement with Chad Harding, owner of The Harding Group, which includes Gatens-Harding Funeral Home in Poca. The meeting was listed on the West Virginia secretary of state’s website as an emergency “special meeting to discuss [a] proposed settlement in [the] Harding matter.”

In a 4-3 vote, the board voted to suspend Harding’s funeral director license for six months and allowed him to keep his embalmment license, according to current and former board members and one of Harding’s attorneys. In West Virginia, the two licenses are usually combined under a dual funeral service license.

After the six-month suspension of his funeral director license, Harding will spend six months on probation.

Discussions about the agreement were conducted in a closed session, according to current and former board members.

All four board members who voted for the agreement were appointed by Gov. Jim Justice. Their terms began July 1, and the meeting to consider the Harding settlement was their first. Two of the new board members know Harding and should not have been allowed to vote on the settlement, the head of the state Funeral Directors Association said in a letter to the board.

The board’s president, Ira Handley; secretary, John H. Taylor; and board member Bill Davis voted against the agreement. Handley said he resigned from the board July 21, and Taylor and Davis said they sent their resignation letters to the board office last week.

“I felt the board let [Harding] set his own penalty. We wanted a full suspension,” said Handley, a Danville funeral director who served on the board for about six years. “We have certain principles as funeral directors.”

“A slap on the hand is what it amounted to,” said Davis, a crematory operator in Chapmanville, who had served on the board for three years.

A federal judge ordered Harding last year to pay nearly $3 million to an Iowa-based insurance company for selling and cashing in on pre-need funeral arrangements for more than 100 people who weren’t dead. Harding was ordered by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to pay three times the amount he and his wife, Billie Harding, bilked from Homesteaders Life Insurance Co.

In December 2016, lawyers for the insurance company filed notice that the judgment against the Hardings had been “sold, transferred and assigned” from Homesteaders Life Insurance Co. to Clay Holding Co. LLC of Belle.

In other words, the Hardings no longer owed the insurance company $2.8 million, but area businessman Tommy Clay was to be reimbursed for the judgment, according to a previous Gazette-Mail report.

The board was scheduled to meet and discuss the Harding matter Tuesday, but it held the emergency meeting July 14 to discuss the agreement with attorneys for Harding and the board present, according to Taylor, a Spencer funeral director, who had served on the board since September 2015.

Mark Weiler, the board’s attorney, would not answer questions about the agreement and directed the Gazette-Mail to members of the board or the West Virginia attorney general’s office.

Webster J. “Jay” Arceneaux, one of two attorneys representing Harding from Lewis, Glasser, Casey and Rollins Law Offices, said Harding’s lawyers wanted the board to reach a decision that was “consistent” with its rulings in similar cases in the past.

“We did extensive research about and filed [Freedom of Information Act] requests to see what had happened with similar problems in the past,” Arceneaux said. “This isn’t the first time this board has dealt with these types of situations.”

The new board members appointed by Justice are Sally Scott Attilli, a nonpracticing funeral service licensee from Grandview; Craig Rotruck, a funeral director in Kingwood; David Deal, a funeral director in Point Pleasant; and Ronald McVey, a citizen member of the board from Scott Depot.

At a second emergency meeting Tuesday, board members elected Attilli as the new president and Deal as the new secretary. The three vacant positions were not listed as filled on the board website Friday.

“The whole drain-the-swamp thing kind of happened, and there were only a few people left — on not just our board, but a lot of boards. And for a lot of boards all that was left was the seated president. But our seated president just left,” Attilli said. “This matter has been an ongoing investigation for almost upwards of two years. The current board came in on the complete tail end of it. The first meeting we [had was] to basically settle this thing. That was a very odd situation to be in.”

Attilli said the new board members were put in a “strange situation,” but she said she believes the board made the right decision on the matter based on “what we had to work with.”

“We don’t have an infinite amount of money to fight this thing,” she said.

In a letter addressed to Handley, Robert C. Kimes, executive director of the West Virginia Funeral Directors Association, asked that two of the new board members, Deal and McVey, recuse themselves from any deliberations and voting on the matter due to a conflict of interest.

The letter was dated July 17, three days after the board’s emergency settlement meeting and eight days before the meeting on Harding’s settlement was originally scheduled.

“We are aware that Mr. Deal and Mr. Harding have discussed in the past the possible acquisition by Mr. Harding of Mr. Deal’s funeral home,” Kimes wrote in the letter. “In the case of Mr. McVey, he attends the same church as Mr. Harding in St. Albans.”

McVey said he does attend the same church as Harding, but he is not close to him. McVey said any accusation of him having a conflict of interest is “silly.”

McVey owns a security technology business that does work for the state Capitol complex, the attorney general’s office and several other organizations. He said he believes he was appointed to the board because of his experience on other boards, his work and his “integrity.”

“There is either zero or very little integrity in the whole industry. I am very surprised in the lack of integrity in the whole industry,” McVey said. “It’s the fact that there wasn’t really any other options. We only had two options [with the Harding matter]. That was to accept the disciplinary action we took or take it to court and bankrupt the board.”

McVey said he believes the three former members resigned due to a conflict with how the board was constituted. McVey said Davis, who is a licensed crematory operator, originally served as the board’s citizen member — a position he cannot hold while working for a funeral home.

However, several board members and an attorney for Harding confirmed that matter was resolved at the time of the Harding settlement.

Deal denied the claims in Kimes’ letter during a phone interview and said he had also not received a copy of the letter.

Deal said he believes the board ultimately made the right decision.

“I know Chad [Harding], everybody on the board knows Chad Harding. But I talk to him only when I ask him to do bodies for me. He helps me out,” he said.

“True, he made a mistake, it was his choice. I feel he does a lot for his community, he really does. He helps other funeral homes out. He’s trying his best to rectify it. I just felt he needed another chance. We punished him a little bit. A lot of people wanted to see him go. He would really be missed if we did it.”

A message left at Gatens-Harding Funeral Home seeking comment from Harding was not returned last week.

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