Legislators plan to introduce in the upcoming session a bill that would terminate the West Virginia Board of Funeral Examiners and transfer all of its powers and duties to the secretary of state.
The bill is a response to a September 2017 audit conducted by the Performance Evaluation and Research Division. The audit recommended the state terminate the board because of misconduct, for acting in its own interests and for delaying action, taking improper action or taking no action in disciplinary matters “potentially placing the public at risk.”
Under the draft legislation, the board and its executive staff would be terminated effective June 30. The Secretary of State’s Office would absorb the majority of the board’s duties — with some changes, according to Jennifer Greenlief, counsel for the Senate.
The switch would be similar to how the state handles licensing and other concerns for private investigators, she said. There is no board for private investigators in West Virginia, rather the industry is overseen by the Secretary of State’s Office.
The bill would give the secretary of state power to oversee and set licensing requirements, field complaints about licensees, transfer the board’s funding to its office and oversee licensing and inspection of funeral establishments. All of the board’s existing rules would be carried over until or if they are replaced by the Secretary of State’s Office.
The board sets continuing-education requirements for licensees and holds a continuing-education course. Under the bill, the Secretary of State’s Office would continue to set continuing-education requirements but would not hold a class of its own.
If passed, the bill would require the Secretary of State’s Office to conduct hearings on disciplinary matters before suspending or revoking a license — unless there is a potential risk or danger to the public or if the Secretary of State’s Office cannot locate the licensee.
The bill would require the office to investigate complaints when they are received and authorizes the office to contact the attorney general, federal prosecutor, a local prosecutor or law enforcement in the event of criminal behavior among licensees.
The September audit came after the board voted to only temporarily suspend the license of Chad Harding, a Putnam County funeral home owner who cashed in more than 100 prearranged funeral plans for people who hadn’t died.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government Organization called for the Performance Evaluation and Research Division to determine why Harding was allowed to maintain his license while being investigated.
Three members of the seven-member board resigned from their positions shortly after the Harding decision. A fourth member resigned in October 2017 over paperwork concerns.
The remaining three members — Sally Scott Attilli, Ronald A. McVey and A. Craig Rotruck — were appointed by Gov. Jim Justice in July 2017 and were set to be confirmed by the Senate on Monday. Senators voted to not confirm the remaining three members.
John Sylvia, director of the Performance Evaluation and Research Division, wrote in the September report that “the board acted to protect the interest of one of its licensees more than the safety of the public” throughout the Harding case.
A federal judge ordered Harding in 2016 to pay nearly $3 million to an Iowa-based insurance company for selling and cashing in on preneed funeral arrangements for more than 100 people who weren’t dead. Harding was ordered by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert 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.
Harding pleaded guilty in November to three felony counts of making fraudulent claims to an insurance company. Harding is expected to be sentenced Jan. 18.