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Menorah Gardens built makeshift vaults with wood, concrete bags
By Mitch Lipka
February 22 2002
Some consumers who contracted and paid for concrete burial vaults at Menorah Gardens cemeteries ended up with makeshift substitutes created when workers dropped bags of cement into graves lined with wood, the state Attorney General’s Office said Thursday.
That was one of the consequences of graves being extensively misaligned at the cemeteries — and it was a form of deception, said Stephen LeClair, an assistant attorney general.
Because burial vaults were out of line from where they were supposed to be, the cemeteries either abandoned sites or jury-rigged solutions when a body had to be placed into a grave too small to fit another vault, LeClair said.
“I don’t think it was done with the knowledge, consent or awareness of any consumer,” he said. “I give [the cemeteries’ owner] credit for creativeness.”
The disclosure added a twist to the investigation into allegations of mishandled graves and remains at the two Palm Beach and Broward county cemeteries.
LeClair also said that a report by the state Comptroller’s Office confirmed that problems in the Broward County Menorah Gardens cemetery are as pervasive as more publicized questions raised about the Palm Beach County cemetery.
And in a sign that inquiries about the management of the cemeteries extend beyond the current corporate owner, Services Corporation International, LeClair acknowledged that state Rep. Mark Weissman, D-Broward, the cemeteries’ former owner and manager, is a subject of the investigation.
LeClair said Menorah’s use of makeshift vaults was deceptive because the cemeteries apparently used them without getting consumers’ approval, nor giving rebates for the vault that wasn’t received.
Don Mathis, spokesman for SCI, said the makeshift vaults are used in tight locations but that the cemetery asks relatives beforehand. The cement bags harden in the wet ground and create what amounts to a vault, he said.
If family members want loved ones to be buried together, a “built in place” structure often is the only solution short of moving someone who is in the ground, Mathis said.
“It wasn’t an economic decision, it was a way to work your way through it,” Mathis said. “There was a lot of compassion put into the decision. The company’s very comfortable with what they did.”
LeClair on Thursday said he received a copy of a confidential report on the Broward cemetery produced by the state Comptroller’s Office, which is working with the Attorney General’s Office in investigating allegations of wrongdoing at the two cemeteries. Although the report cannot be disclosed, he can discuss his impressions of it.
The Broward report is one of the final pieces the Attorney General’s Office had been waiting for before filing an expected lawsuit accusing SCI of unfair and deceptive trade practices. A civil lawsuit that prompted the state investigation was filed in December on behalf of families who alleged the remains of their relatives had been mistreated.
Mathis said not being able to see the reports on the cemeteries makes it impossible to directly respond to LeClair.
“We’re really in a difficult position. We haven’t seen them,” he said. “There’s not much we can say about them.”
He took particular exception to the term “massive and pervasive” that LeClair has assigned to problems at both cemeteries.
“Those are clearly terms designed to excite someone, which I think is very unfortunate for the families,” Mathis said.
LeClair said SCI has put corporate greed ahead of consumers by refusing to address — as the company now is — problems at the cemeteries on a wholesale basis.
“If they had done what they’re doing now in 1996 when they got the report [detailing burial errors], we wouldn’t be where we are now,” LeClair said. “They didn’t do it because they didn’t want consumers to find out about their mistakes and what a mess it was. That’s bad business.”
Mathis said problems were addressed case by case to deal with family concerns as they came up.
LeClair said Weissman, the state representative, is under investigation for his former management of the cemetery.
Weissman, reached at his Tallahassee office, said he was surprised he is being looked at. He worked for SCI as general manager of the properties after SCI bought them in 1995. While he no longer is employed by SCI, the company under terms of the sale is paying him.
Weissman said he collects $200,000 a year plus health insurance for his family — a sum he has been paid since 1995 and will continue to receive for three more years.
Problems of spacing and putting bodies in the wrong places, for the most part, were the fault of the prior owner, SCI has said.
Weissman said he has been caught up in the investigation because the Houston-based corporation is trying to shift blame.
“I think SCI recognized there may be a problem there,” he said. “If they’re going to have a court case, the muddier they make the water the harder it will be to ascertain what the problem is. They’re trying to point fingers everywhere they can at this point. I expect that the state would look at all possibilities including what SCI is claiming.”
LeClair said both SCI and Weissman deserve scrutiny.
“Because of the nature and severity of the problems, it is an essential part of the investigation of SCI that we also look into the condition of the cemeteries at the time they acquired them and the extent and nature of the disclosures made at the time,” LeClair said.
It’s an unresolved question whether Weissman told SCI prior to the purchase about any problems at the cemeteries, LeClair said. “After the acquisition, it’s clear he did not do that,” he said.
Weissman has said SCI had ample opportunity prior to the sale to learn about whatever problems might have existed. He denied there was anything to report at the time.
“I wasn’t aware of any problems,” he said.
In the year following the sale, company manager Peter Hartmann made notes of extensive burial errors. It would be particularly troubling, LeClair said, if it turned out Weissman had anything to do with squelching Hartmann’s 1996 report. Hartmann killed himself days after the December lawsuit was filed.
Weissman said he doesn’t remember whether he was working there when Hartmann paced the cemetery trying to reconcile burial errors.
On recent tour of the Menorah Gardens location west of Riviera Beach, Mathis tried to cast doubt about the accuracy of Hartmann’s notes. Although he allowed that mistakes had been made both in the spacing of graves and of putting people in the wrong plots, he blamed most of those on Weissman’s regime.
Mitch Lipka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6653.
Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel