Casket Case Closes with State Agency Dropping Threat of $10K Maximum Fine

June 13, 2013

Investigative Reports

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By CURT OLSON

Casket

More on the State House’s ‘funeral cartel’

A Lexington County man who faced a fine of up to $10,000 after he was accused of selling $300 “pre-need” caskets without a state license had his case closed recently by the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs.

The department in a Jan. 14 letter threatened Swansea resident Mike White that it would initiate action in the state Administrative Law Court, where White could face a fine “not to exceed $10,000,” if he didn’t pay a $750 administrative fine by Jan. 24 that the agency offered as part of a “settlement agreement,’ or resolution without a hearing.

White ignored an initial Oct. 10 deadline to pay the administrative fine, according to Consumer Affairs. He also missed the Jan. 24 deadline, the department contended, though the agency never followed through on its threat to take him to court.

White’s nearly eight-month ordeal with the agency ended with a May 15 letter from Danny Collins, the department’s deputy for regulatory enforcement.

“Advertising that the caskets are pre-need comes very close to violating the law by holding yourself out as selling pre-need,” Collins wrote, noting White should alter language on his advertising for wooden caskets. “The department is closing this matter.”

Had White been hit with the $10,000 fine, he would have to sell 34 caskets at $300 each to pay it off.

The Nerve this week could not reach White for comment, despite repeated attempts.

The S.C. General Assembly has passed several laws in recent years governing “pre-need” funeral contracts, insurance policies and the potential establishment of trusts. The Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) enforces those laws.

In a story last month about funeral-industry regulations, The Nerve reported  that Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, has succeeded over the years in passing laws for the funeral industry. Sandifer is a licensed funeral director and embalmer, state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (LLR) records show.

Gere Fulton, president of the board of directors for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina, a nonprofit group that educates people on funeral-related goods and services, contended in a letter Friday to Carri Grube Lybarker, Department of Consumer Affairs administrator, that White’s struggle with the DCA “created a hostile environment for others” wanting to make and sell cheaper caskets.

The Board of Funeral Service (BFS), a division of LLR, pushed White to be a licensed retail outlet, which would have required him to publicly display six caskets, among other things. In The Nerve’s prior report, Fulton described the BFS as industry insiders who have created a “cartel against competition.”

Fulton’s June 7 letter to Grube Lybarker also states that he learned Friday that the DCA had closed White’s case after the agency had informed Fulton that it would communicate only with White.

Fulton told The Nerve Wednesday he first learned about White’s ordeal in early spring and filed a complaint on April 24 to Grube Lybarker contending the agency had no jurisdiction in White’s case.

“Since Mr. White is not a licensed funeral director, and he is self-employed, it is obvious that he does not come under the control of this regulation,” Fulton wrote in his complaint.

After seeing Collins’ May 15 letter to White, Fulton wrote the follow-up letter Friday to Grube Lybarker.

“The late Gilda Radner’s classic line, ‘Oh, never mind,’ was funny as a skit on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Fulton wrote. “It’s anything but funny when it comes from an agency of the state of South Carolina that is ostensibly charged with protecting residents of our state, not harassing them.”

“Have you or Mr. Collins given any thought to how your demand for payment or else, might affect an innocent person?”  Fulton asked in his letter. “Why is it that governmental agencies find it so difficult to accept responsibility for their mistakes and apologize for whatever harm they may have caused?”

In an email response Monday to The Nerve, DCA spokeswoman Juliana Harris disputed Fulton’s claims.

“We respectfully disagree with Mr. Fulton’s perspective,” Harris wrote. “The Department of Consumer Affairs is charged with administering and enforcing the pre-need funeral contract law. Mr. White advertised caskets for sale at ‘pre-need.’ To avoid the appearance of holding himself out as a pre-need provider, the department advised that he change the wording on his advertising.”

“Further, the department offered to host a meeting to discuss any concerns if Mr. White so desired,” Harris continued. “As of this date, we received no such request.”

Harris was out of the office when The Nerve submitted additional questions regarding whether the DCA overreached with the threat of a large fine against White, and the potential chilling effect agency actions could have on the marketplace.

The photo accompanying this article is a Facebook photo on the page of White’s Green Services in Swansea.