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Problems mount for Poca funeral home owner

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The owner of a Poca funeral home has been suspended from providing transport services to the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, effective immediately.

In a letter addressed to Chad Harding, owner and president of The Harding Family Group, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Public Health and Chief Medical Examiner’s Office said each of Harding’s businesses no longer is “approved and authorized” to provide services because of a “potential breach of confidentiality.”

The letter, which is dated Monday, is signed by Matt Izzo, administrator of the OCME.

The letter suspends Tri-State Mortuary Services LLC, Harding Family Group LLC, Gatens-Harding Funeral Home Inc., Haven of Rest Memorial Gardens LLC and Haven of Rest Memory Gardens and Crematorium from transporting deceased bodies to the Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsies. Harding and his businesses also are not permitted to transport bodies from the Medical Examiner’s Office to other funeral homes in the state.

“The basis of the suspension is the recent discovery that Tri-State Mortuary and/or the Gatens-Harding Funeral Home was in possession of confidential government documents that appear to have been removed from OCME personnel files and decedent case files,” Izzo wrote in the letter. “Given the appearance of a potential breach of confidentiality and the unlawful taking and/or possession of confidential government documents, it is incumbent upon the Department of Health and Human Resources to initiate an investigation of the purported breach and unlawful taking/and or possession of confidential government documents.”

In January, the Legislative Post Audit Division submitted a letter to then-Senate President Bill Cole and House Speaker Tim Armstead, detailing its findings from a review of the OCME’s body transport invoices for fiscal years 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014.

A previous audit of the OCME found that the office had paid approximately $76,281 more than necessary to transportation vendors, including Tri-State Mortuary, during the 2012 fiscal year.

The audit found that, in fiscal year 2012, vendors were reimbursed per body, rather than the established mileage rate, and vendors were paid excessive mileage reimbursements to transport bodies to one of two OCME locations in the state. The audit also found that vendors were incorrectly paid for “other instances” — including duplicate payments, excessive mileage and payments for “wait time at the scene,” — which is not a billable fee — totaling $700 to Tri-State Mortuary.

The review of the additional years began in February 2016. However, out of 6,142 documents, 1,019 documents were missing from the Bureau of Public Health and the OCME, according to the letter. Auditors continued to receive documents through October 2016. Officials from the Bureau for Public Health and the DHHR told auditors that documents were missing because “the official records are separated into two sets of archives” and “The Bureau for Public Health’s older archived finance records were found to be incomplete and misfiled,” according to the letter.

All documents were ultimately reviewed, with the exception of 67 invoices totaling $4,150.

A spokesman for the DHHR did not respond Tuesday to an inquiry on whether the missing documents were those Harding is accused of possessing.

The review of the additional years found that the OCME overpaid transportation vendors an additional $141,316 for similar reasons, as in 2012, bringing the total amount of overpayment to vendors to $217,597 from fiscal year 2010 to 2014.

The audit was issued in 2015 and was conducted for the period of July 1, 2003 through June 30, 2014.

The audit found that the OCME “entered into an unwarranted, handwritten, 10-year contract with Tri-State Mortuary Services” in 2008.

The contract, which is between Harding and the former OCME chief of operations, was “what appears to be an effort to create a ‘sole source’ contract to exclude other vendors,” the audit reads.

Body transport is exempt from the state’s formal bidding process due to the “unpredictable nature” of the service, according to the audit.

In a response to the audit findings, the Bureau for Public Health and the OCME said the agencies do not “recognize the purported contract as a legally binding contract, nor has OCME conducted the operation of the office in accordance with the terms of the purported contract.”

An analysis in the audit found that there was a “dramatic increase in the percentage of body transport payments made to Tri-State” from fiscal years 2003 to 2009.

Tri-State Mortuary received $276,867 in 2009 — as compared to $149,323 paid to all 172 other vendors that year.

The analysis found that Tri-State received approximately $1.8 million from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2013 — compared to $967,000 for all other vendors in that same period.

“There is a strong appearance of preferential treatment toward Tri-State Mortuary Services when considering the ‘hand-written contract’ for a service exempted by the Purchasing Division, the extremely high percentage of transport business received by the vendor, and the preparation of invoices by an employee,” the audit reads.

In response to whether it gave “preferential treatment” to one vendor, the OCME said it installed a new system in 2013 to “rotate vendors as each case occurs.”

“It should be noted, however, vendors that provide services statewide are limited,” the agency said in its response. “This, in part, accounts for increased services by one vendor.”

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.

Three members of the state funeral board recently resigned from their positions after the board’s decision to only temporarily suspend Harding’s funeral director license.

Reach Carlee Lammers at, 304-348-1230 or follow @CarleeLammers on Twitter.

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