State lawmaker is accused of operating illegal cemetery
© St. Petersburg Times
TALLAHASSEE -- An Ocala legislator who tried to take the regulation of funeral homes and cemeteries away from Comptroller Bob Milligan this year was accused by Milligan on Wednesday of operating an illegal cemetery and failing to properly maintain trust funds.
The charges were brought against two companies in which Rep. Dennis K. Baxley is an officer. Milligan alleges that the two companies violated state law 556 times. The charges are not criminal, but could endanger the business licenses and lead to fines totaling more than $2.7-million.
Baxley, a Republican elected in 2000, is vice president of the companies that own the cemetery and operate Hiers-Baxley Funeral Homes in Ocala.
The state wants to block future sales of pre-need contracts and cemetery plots until the problems are resolved. Those who purchased services and lots are not in danger of losing their investments, said Fred Carr, public affairs officer for the state agency.
Baxley said he was surprised by the charges and questions whether they are an attempt to punish him for criticizing how the state has handled the investigation of other funeral homes and cemeteries.
"I hope there was no political motivation in them coming after me," Baxley said. "I would certainly hope their professional integrity is well above that line."
Baxley said he has met with lawyers from Milligan's office and believes the allegations can be amicably and quickly settled. He said the company already stopped selling lots in the cemetery and is providing perpetual care for it because it is adjacent to another, larger cemetery it also owns.
Milligan's complaint accuses Hillcrest Cemetery, owned by the funeral home, with 218 unlicensed sales of cemetery plots and failure to maintain cemetery trust funds.
The funeral home also is charged with 338 additional counts of violating trust fund laws and other matters.
Baxley said all of the violations are accounting and licensing issues that have been the subject of past audits.
"In this situation, no one has been harmed," Baxley said. "In South Florida and Daytona Beach, I saw people hurt and tried to make some changes in regulation."
A Daytona Beach funeral home was investigated for mistreatment of bodies, burying them in the wrong location and allowing cemeteries to fall apart. Cemeteries in West Palm Beach and Broward County were accused last year of grave tampering and burying bodies in the wrong spots.
Baxley said his company's cemetery is smaller than 5 acres and existed before the state regulated cemeteries. It is adjacent to a larger cemetery the companies operate.
Baxley was the prime sponsor of a bill this year that would have moved the regulation of funeral homes and cemeteries from the Department of Banking and Finance to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The bill did not get out of a House committee.
Baxley filed the bill in February, months after auditors from Milligan's office began auditing transactions at the funeral home and cemetery.
Milligan said he did not oppose the change because he generally agrees that all matters relating to the funeral industry belong under one agency. Milligan's office handles pre-need sales at cemeteries and funeral homes because they involve the sale of advance contracts and need to be reviewed by someone with financial expertise.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation licenses funeral directors and crematoriums.
"I didn't care who handled it as long as whoever did it could handle the pre-need side of the funeral business," Milligan said.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire