Regulatory boards should establish plans and procedures for communicating to key stakeholders both regularly and during crises. This article is based on a presentation by Jennifer Kandt at the 2019 FSBPT Annual Meeting.
The Nevada Funeral and Cemetery Services Board regulates all of the funeral homes, crematories, cemeteries, embalmers, funeral directors, etc. In January 2017, we received a tip that a local funeral home was storing bodies in a warehouse outside of refrigeration. The case continued to make headlines up to a year later, but not because of the case—because of the conflicts of interest.
Now, one of the allegations was that the funeral home had severally decomposing remains. It’s not unusual to receive bodies in decomposed states. So the funeral home’s government affairs advisor said that allegation was completely unfounded. In fact, he said everything in the complaint was unfounded. However, our board states otherwise—in a January 23 visit we found bodies in un-refrigerated areas. The next day, I conducted an inspection of the funeral home and found sixteen bodies stored outside of refrigeration and multiple bodies on tables and even a body on the floor. The complaint notes an extreme odor as well. The local news crew also spoke with employees from surrounding businesses who also noted the smell.
However, the advisor claimed that the inspector—me, the executive director of the board—conducting the investigation was not qualified to conduct such an investigation. The advisor told the media that I didn’t understand the funeral industry and that there was an ulterior motive behind the complaint, which was made anonymously. He said four member of the state board are active in the funeral home industry, so they are essentially just reporting their competitors. He wrongly said that only the board had access to the complaint, when in fact it was available at open board meetings.
I had a critical media story with inaccurate information, and that’s why it’s so important to have a plan or action for how to deal with the media.
I also needed to address the criticism against me that I wasn’t qualified. While I’m not a funeral director or embalmer, this case didn’t require those expertise. Pictures I took show bodily fluids on the floor, bodies everywhere in an un-refrigerated place, and bodies on tables that other witnesses say were used to serve food at funerals. And, of course, those pictures don’t capture the smell. Remember, people are paying to shelter these remains. We have statues that bodies must be refrigerated within twenty-four hours at a temperature of not more than forty-eight degrees, but forty-eight degrees is actually quite high. They had no air conditioning and argued that because it was forty-eight degrees outside, they were fine. Well, it was fifty degrees inside.
The funeral home ultimately kept their license, they were placed on a five-year probation. They were ordered to pay $5,000 per body out of refrigeration on that date, which amounted to $80,000, even though testimony would reveal this had been going on for several weeks.
They were also ordered to pay all of the boards' legal fees and costs in the amount of about $85,000. So in total, they owed close to $165,000 in fines and fees, plus their own attorneys’ fees. Why did they keep their license? I think it's difficult for a board to revoke a license when you haven't done a summary suspension immediately, because if this was such a threat to public health and safety, then why would the board let them continue to operate for five months while the proceedings were taking place? Therefore, it's actually up to your attorney general's office to recommend actions in our disciplinary proceedings. The attorney general's office recommended against the summary suspension.
A few months later, there was another story in the news. My husband was chief of the Boards and Commissions Division and he would potentially supervise any attorney that was prosecuting this case. What did we do about that potential conflict of interest? They gave me an attorney outside of the Boards and Commissions Division. So that meant for this big case, I had an attorney who had never prosecuted an administrative law case.
But that wasn’t the only potential conflict. The owner of the funeral home was also deputy chief of investigations for the State of Nevada Attorney General's Office. As I mentioned, the Attorney General's Office recommended against a summary suspension. Well of course they did, it's their own employee, they don't want a news story.
The issue of my qualifications came up again, but, fortunately, I was able to point to a CLEAR certification that made me a qualified inspector. This is why it’s important your staff is properly trained.
And there was yet another conflict of interest with the board members. Out of the four board members that were accused of having a conflict of interest, three of them didn’t own businesses close to Reno. However, one of them did, and she would have benefited a lot if this funeral home went out of business, as there are only four funeral homes in Reno. Therefore, she did recuse herself from this case, which was a good idea.
So the media had a lot to consider with all the varying potential conflicts of interest. Which one did they focus on? The biggest issue was that the funeral home’s owner had not disclosed to the state, his employer, that he had another business.
Overall, it was a difficult experience, but I learned a lot of things that might be helpful to other regulators.
As regulators, we are often open to scrutiny. With the right planning and procedures we can properly protect the public and communicate our actions to all relevant stakeholders.
Executive Director, State of Nevada Funeral and Cemetery Services Board
Jennifer Kandt is currently the Executive Director for the Nevada State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Services and serves as the President for the Association of Executives of Funeral Service Boards. She is a current Board member of The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards representing Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah, and the previous Chair of the Model Internship Committee for The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards. Ms. Kandt previously regulated court mandated domestic violence intervention education and is a former board member and secretary of the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. She holds a BS degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, and has been working in government regulation for over fourteen years, and she speaks regularly at conferences and events across the country regarding regulatory issues.
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