ATLANTA — A state board which oversees spaces where people go after they die, held a meeting earlier this month with families who are frustrated with one of the nation’s largest cemetery owners.
The little know entity is Georgia’s Board of Cemeterians. It's charged with regulating perpetual care cemeteries and licensing individuals who sell the plots and related merchandise.
The board falls under the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and governors appoint its members.
The seven-member board will soon decide whether to levy $753,000 in proposed fines against StoneMor, Inc. It's likely the state’s largest penalty against a single cemetery operator for failing to maintain gravesites and its properties.
While board members deliberate how to hold StoneMor accountable, a Reveal investigation uncovered one of its members is currently trying to profit from the company. It's raising conflict-of-interest concerns and placing doubt in the board’s ability to impose a fair penalty.
OUR FIRST INVESTIGATION
In May 2021, the state sent cease and desist orders to StoneMor, Inc. after inspectors identified numerous violations at seven cemeteries owned by the company throughout the state.
WATCH: Toppled headstones, sunken graves, exposed caskets: Families demand accountability from Ga. cemetery owners
Among its findings, investigators identified broken headstones, sunken graves and described maintenance issues as “rampant.”
The state’s findings are in response to an 11Alive Reveal investigation in April 2021 that identified similar issues at three Rome, Georgia cemeteries and documented in a Facebook group run by families of the deceased over the past four years.
At the time, some of its nearly 1,000 members posted pictures of problems at Oaknoll Memorial, Floyd Memory and Sunset Hill Memorial – all owned by StoneMor.
On February 15, the board allowed families to voice their concerns about the state’s findings during a virtual meeting conducted over Zoom.
“I would ask that each of you take a look at these pictures and consider if it was your mother, your child, your spouse that their vault was literally exposed,” April Worthington said to the board, nearly in tears.
Worthington lives in Rome with multiple family members, who are buried in Oaknoll Memorial Gardens cemetery including her late father.
“I’ve seen the cemetery just damaged time and time again. Vaults exposed. It’s a sad, sad situation,” Sonya Vincent said in an emotional plea to the board.
In 2018, cemetery workers were forced to dig her late father’s casket after burring him in the wrong plot.
A CONFLICT OF INTEREST
One of the board members listening to their concerns included Michael Lawrence. He’s served on the board since at least 2006, appointed by former Governor Sonny Perdue.
According to records filed with the Secretary of State’s office, Lawrence is the Chief Financial Officer of Cecil Lawrence, Inc, which owns multiple cemetery properties in Georgia.
Seven months after the state announced its proposed fines against StoneMor, records obtained from the state show Lawrence’s company requesting regulators’ approval to sell four cemeteries to the national cemetery chain for an undisclosed amount.
Lawrence’s cemeteries include Lafayette Memory Gardens in Lafayette, Mozley Memorial Gardens in Lithia Springs, Westwood Gardens in Griffin and Greenhills Memorial Gardens in Summerville.
Reveal Investigator Andy Pierrotti asked Lawrence if he believed it was appropriate for his company to profit from StoneMor while he sits on a board that could impose financial penalties against it.
The Carrol County board member said, “I have no comment.”
Richard Parker, a fellow board member, said the Reveal’s question was inappropriate.
“You’re singling out one person" said Parker, who also owns a cemetery and a funeral home in Brunswick. "You’re not [part] of the public comment period and you’re a reporter."
Rome families expressed concerns over Lawrence’s pending transaction with StoneMor.
“Does that make any sense for us to even believe that you would make an objective decision regarding StoneMor in this matter, that you’re trying to make a financial deal with them?"
"No sir, it does not,” said Barbara Penson, a Rome resident with deceased loved ones buried in Oaknoll Memorial Gardens. Penson is the Clerk of Superior Court in Floyd County.
Board members heard from StoneMor, too.
An attorney representing the company shared a 15-minute presentation showing it has spent thousands improving cemetery conditions, including replacing broken granite, road paving and sodding.
“We wanted to tell you that we are taking steps, and we are trying to address all of the concerns that the Secretary of State has highlighted,” said BJay Pak, a law partner with Alston and Bird.
State board meets to discuss proposed fines against StoneMor, Inc.
Additionally, Pak shared that the company spent more than a million dollars last year in maintenance expenditures, which is in excess of the perpetual care funds at its properties to improve conditions.
Over the next three years, the company also pledged to spend $670,00 in supplemental projects, prioritizing its Rome cemeteries.
“These properties are very old and needs some improvements significantly,” said Pak. “The law does not require perfection. Certainly, what the law general requires is reasonable conditions in maintaining the cemeteries.”
Pak is the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, who resigned allegedly amid pressure from former President Donald Trump to investigate unfounded claims Georgia’s 2020 election was riddled with fraud.
Board members asked families for patience and promised to take appropriate action.
“We feel your pain. We hear your pain,” Parker said.
The sale of Lawrence’s cemeteries to StoneMor is still pending.
The Secretary of State’s office did not provide a timeline on the board’s decision about StoneMor’s proposed fine. It’s next scheduled meeting is April 19.