International (SCI), the largest funeral services provider in North America, implicated in scandals in Texas and Florida, recently
learned that one of its subsidiaries is negotiating a lucrative contract with
the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove dead bodies in areas ravaged
by Hurricane Katrina.
paid $100 million to settle a class-action lawsuit several years ago alleging
the company desecrated thousands of corpses, and dumped bodies into mass
the company paid $200,000 to settle a whistleblower lawsuit that sought to
expose that two members of the Texas funeral commission, the agency which
regulates the funeral industry, were actually employees of the company they
were supposed to monitor -- an obvious conflict-of-interest.
In the civil
matter, which took place at two Jewish cemeteries in Florida, the plaintiff's attorney said that Service
Corporation International of Florida, Inc., a subsidiary of SCI, secretly broke
into and opened burial vaults and dumped remains in a wooded area where the
remains may have been consumed by wild animals.
of Florida buried "remains in locations other than those purchased by
plaintiffs; crushing burial vaults in order to make room for other vaults;
stacking remains rather than burying them side-by-side; secretly digging up and
removing remains; secretly burying remains head-to-foot rather than
side-by-side; secretly mixing body parts and remains from different
individuals; secretly allowing plots owned by one party to be occupied by a
different person; secretly selling plots in rows where there were more graves
assigned than the rows could accommodate; secretly allowed graves to encroach
on other plots; secretly sold plots so narrow that the plots could not
accommodate standard burial vaults; secretly participated in the desecration of
gravesites and markers and failed to exercise reasonable care in handling the
plaintiff's loved ones remains."
International, a unit of SCI, is presently in charge of the delicate task of
collecting the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead bodies in the aftermath of
the hurricane. The fact that a subsidiary of SCI is in talks with the federal
government, largely due to its close ties to the White House, to remove bodies
in New Orleans is ghastly.
suit dates back to 1999 and alleges that while he was governor of Texas, George
W. Bush's office interfered with an aggressive state investigation into the
embalming practices by Service Corporation International, a Houston-based
funeral conglomerate headed by Robert Waltrip -- a close friend of the Bush
family who also contributed heavily to then Gov. Bush's gubernatorial
campaigns, and donated $100,000 to former President George H. W, Bush's
attorney for Eliza May, the whistleblower who served as executive director of the Texas Funeral
Services Commission, the state agency that regulates the funeral business,
claimed that she was fired from her state job because she raised questions
about SCI's embalming practices and sought to expose the company's misdeeds.
She filed a whistleblower suit in 1999 alleging "she was the victim
of "political" retaliation because she was threatening the interests
of a well-connected political patron of the governor," Newsweek reported in an April 21,
claimed that current White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales was also complicit in
the matter and even helped SCI in a cover-up. Gonzales, who was also Bush's
gubernatorial counsel, reportedly received a memo on April 22, 1996, suggesting
possible improprieties by two funeral commissioners with ties to SCI.
"Bush and his
top aides have heatedly denied the charges and suggested the entire matter was
drummed up by Democratic lawyers with political motives, Newsweek reported.
The memo, written
by Marc Allen Connelly, who was general counsel to the funeral services commission at the time, and sent to Dick
McNeil, the Bush-appointed chairman of the funeral commission, stated that Connelly "received information"
from Texas state officials that two of the funeral
commissioners charged with regulating the
state funeral business actually worked for SCI -- the largest funeral firm in the state. Although one of
the commissioners was openly an SCI officer (the one appointed by Bush),
Connelly stated that state banking records he inspected showed that another of
the commissioners [also worked for SCI]," Newsweek reported.
represented a "a possible statutory conflict." Texas law prohibited
any two commissioners from having ties "directly or indirectly "to
the same funeral company.
memo, Connelly told McNeil that he should "immediately inform the Governor
of this apparent conflict and also recommend that the Governor take action to
remove both (the two SCI-related commissioners) from the commission because
both individuals knew or should have known of this conflict yet failed to
notify the governor's office."
stated in a deposition that after he received the Connelly memo, he faxed it to
Polly Sowell, who then served as Bush's appointments secretary. "When she
was questioned, Sowell was asked what she did with the memo. "I sent it to
the General Counsel's Office," she said. But Sowell said she did not
remember what happened after that and, in his interview with Newsweek, Gonzales
said such a memo was merely one of many that might have crossed his desk and
was otherwise not memorable. In any case, Bush never acted on the memo's
recommendations that the SCI affiliated commissioners be removed."
© 2005 Jason Leopold
Jason Leopold is the author of the explosive
memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House
Books. Visit Leopold's website at www.jasonleopold.com for updates.