Thursday, August 19, 2010
Ethics complaint lodged in county
By BARRY BURLESON
The Mississippi Ethics Commission has filed a complaint in Marshall County circuit court against two former county coroners, Chuck Thomas and John Garrison, covering periods when each served terms in that office.
Thomas was named in a lawsuit claiming he had a “material financial interest” in Holly Springs Funeral Home Inc., as coroner during the years 2000-2003, when the funeral home was vendor and contractor to Marshall County. A total of $3,755 including money for body bags, transportation of bodies and pauper burials was paid by Marshall County during 2003, the plaintiffs said.
Thomas is now chancery clerk, serving his second term.
Garrison is also named in the complaint as having a business relationship with Holly Springs Funeral Home Inc., while he served as coroner between 2004 and 2007 and with having a “material financial interest” in the funeral home. During that period the county is alleged to have paid a total of $24,350 for transportation, body bags and pauper burials to the funeral home.
The complaint asks each defendant be assessed a fine of up to $5,000 and that they return the dollars stated in the lawsuit to the county, plus pay court and attorney’s fees.
The complaint in essence claims the two, while coroner, had conflicts of interest because they were being paid as coroner and by the funeral home as well.
Thomas denied having any conflict of interest while serving as coroner, “because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Over 50 coroners in the state are doing exactly what I have done,” Thomas said. “Counties don’t have funds to have a removal service on hand 24 hours a day.”
In years past, Marshall County had no contract for ambulance services and the funeral homes had their own ambulance which they used to respond to accidents and to pick up deceased accident victims, he said.
Eventually the funeral homes went out of the ambulance business and the county contracted its own ambulance service, Thomas said.
The bodies have to be stored at a funeral home until next of kin can be located or the body can be shipped for autopsy, he said. Thomas Funeral Home built a refrigerated facility to hold bodies when no relatives can be found.
A pauper’s fee of $350 is standard fee for burial of a body when there is no other way to bury the body and the county provides the grave site and opens and closes the grave, he said. The fee barely covers the cost the funeral home incurs and they may actually lose money if no one claims the body, Thomas said.
The complaint against Thomas and Garrison was signed by Thomas B. Hood, executive director and chief counsel with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, and Faith R. Hill, assistant director and counsel with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Thomas submitted a response to the newspaper. The letter to the citizens of Marshall County is printed in its entirety here.
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