4 controversial new appointments removed from funeral board

Appointments of four new members to a state board that oversees funeral homes are being withdrawn amid an inspection controversy that prompted a lawmaker to introduce legislation that would shift some board functions.

Gov. Mike Parson appointed the new members in September amid complaints that previous members had stepped up their inspections too much by asking investigators to take more photos after a crematorium was found in such disrepair that fluids bodies were leaking on the floor.

But Republican Senate Speaker Pro Dave Schatz said Wednesday that senators had determined that a few of the appointees did not appear to qualify to serve on the board. He said Parson’s office then decided to remove the four appointees.

“They felt it was best to start the process over again,” he told The Associated Press.

Republican State Senator Cindy O’Laughlin has called for changes since the new Parson appointees first met in October. During the meeting, the new appointees fired Lori Hayes, the executive director of the board, and Randall Jennings, who oversaw the financial reviews of prearranged funeral service vendors, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the PA.

Jennings was completing its second round of financial reviews, with some of the biggest vendors still to come. The reviews were required under a 2009 law passed in response to the financial collapse of a company that promised to provide more than $650 million in funeral services.

A council lawyer had been fired months earlier and an inspector was fired within days, leaving the council with very few experienced staff.

The layoffs came as council 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 legislation that would shift the responsibility for financial review of prearranged funeral service vendors away from the board and into the secretary of state’s office.

“It’s at least an attempt to ensure advance funeral plans are appropriately monitored and money is kept safe,” she said. “And I’m not trying to imply that’s not the case, but I’m not sure that’s the case either.”

Parson’s spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. She said in an earlier email that the appointments were made because three members had served for expired terms; the fourth seat was vacant.

She said the Republican governor’s office received complaints from funeral home owners about the board and investigators, but did not seek more lenient inspections because of them.

But Sheila Solon, the new acting director of the Professional Registration Division, was overheard saying at a meeting in March 2021 that investigators must stop taking photos of the funeral homes they inspect unless they have detected a violation that must be documented.

“We have received complaints from the governor’s office about this process,” Solon said in a recording of the meeting, which was also obtained through a recording request. She described the images as “intrusive and exaggerated from the government”.

Schatz said Solon’s nomination was not rescinded. But O’Laughlin said she was also concerned about Solon’s nomination and would not vote for her, noting, “I don’t feel good about what happened here.”

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

The Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, a trade group, which complained to the board about the photos, said in a message to its members that the decision to remove the new appointees was not unexpected.

“Neither governors nor Senate leaders ever like to have contentious issues regarding volunteer board appointments,” the post reads.

None of those named – Greg Russell, Kasey Griffin, Courtney McGhee and Victoria Anne Schwinke – immediately returned a phone message seeking comment on Thursday.