CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s funeral home licensing board is aiming for a new lease on life.
A couple of years ago, as controversy swirled over how the agency responded to a fraud allegation, the Legislature recommended killing the agency and passing its duties to other parts of state government.
But now the membership of the West Virginia Board of Funeral Service Examiners is totally new. And within the past few weeks the board has pushed out the agency’s director and office manager.
“We were trying to make sure the current board could bring back the credibility that seemed to be lost,” said Eugene Fahey, president of the board and an executive with Altmeyer Funeral Homes & Crematory in the Wheeling area.
Just a couple of years ago, the board was grappling with a scandal.
Funeral home owner Chad Harding of Poca was accused of committing fraud against 111 consumers with pre-need policies.
A federal lawsuit claimed Harding had filed false death claims and claims of providing funeral services prior to the actual deaths of those who held the policies — receiving $900,000 by cashing in the claims.
Meanwhile, the Board of Funeral Service Examiners was accused of slow walking a decision about Harding’s license.
A legislative audit concluded that the board received a copy of the federal complaint about Harding in August 2015 but didn’t begin discussing Harding’s actions until March 2016.
A written response by Regina Anderson, who at the time was the executive director of the Board of Funeral Service Examiners, indicated the agency was following the advice of counsel not to act until a criminal case against Harding’s reached a conclusion in court.
But the audit concluded that the board had acted more to protect one of its own, rather than focusing on the needs of the public.
“Given the history of this Board and the most recent case of Mr. Chad Harding, the Legislative Auditor concludes that the Legislature should consider terminating the Board and placing the regulatory function under another health-related state agency such as the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Public Health.”
Robert Kimes of the West Virginia Funeral Directors Association, the trade group that represents the industry, spoke before a legislative hearing in 2017. That day he recommended removal of current board members and office staff .
“Even as we speak the West Virginia consumer remains at risk,” Kimes told legislators.
The funeral home oversight agency lived on, but its board’s membership was reconstituted.
“I’m really hoping this new board will correct all the problems,” said Delegate Gary Howell, chairman of the House Government Organization Committee.
“We’ll see how the new board does and make sure they’re not giving slaps on the wrist when a severe criminal activity occurs.”
This past July, the newly-constituted board took another look at the Harding case. Members of the new board put out a statement saying a six-month suspension and then a six-month probation for Harding’s license was too lenient.
“The current membership of the board takes this opportunity to memorialize its disagreement with the terms,” members wrote.
But the board concluded that there is nothing it can do any more.
A few weeks ago, new board president Fahey sent a proposed meeting agenda to the agency’s office. It included possible action to retain or dismiss the director and the office manager.
The office manager, Connie Soan, resigned right away. Sloan had been an employee at the agency since 2005 and at one point was the executive director before moving into the part-time office manager role.
Anderson, the most recent executive director, stayed on until the board meeting and then was unanimously let go.
Sloan, contacted by MetroNews, said she and Anderson did not wish to comment.
“Regina has been very cooperative and has said to me personally that there is no ill will or bad feelings,” Fahey said. “It was not a dismissal that had a lot of emotion behind it in a negative way.”
The board hired Linda Lyter, who already serves as executive director of some other state boards, to serve as interim director. Her pay was set at $28,000 a year, an amount that takes into account her continued work for other boards.
“The board is just moving in a different direction with leadership,” Lyter said Tuesday.
With all the changes, Fahey said, the board hopes to regain the confidence of the Governor’s Office and the Legislature.
“Whether it is fact or fiction what happened with the Harding case,” Fahey said, “this board absolutely wanted a new start, wanted to restore some confidence in the public and the licensees in the state.”