METAIRIE — An ad hoc Louisiana Cemetery Board agreed to grant a lucrative sales license to the operator of the once financially troubled Oak Lane cemetery in Ascension Parish if he meets conditions of a settlement reached Monday.
A year and a half ago, the Cemetery Board refused to grant the same license to the operator, National Information Services Inc., as board Chairman Gerald Melancon then opined NIS's owner, Lawrence Dodd, didn't have his heart where it should be to run a cemetery.
But the agreement worked out primarily behind closed doors and ratified unanimously Monday at the board's Metairie office, over the objections of one gravesite owner, requires NIS to meet conditions before it can get the license.
"It allows a path forward to obtain a certificate of authority and allows everyone to take a deep breath and start from scratch," Jill Craft, NIS's attorney said.
If granted, the certificate would mean NIS, which does business as Oak Lane Memorial Park, could sell "pre-need" grave plots years before someone dies, a profitable side of the cemetery business but one that entrusts operators with significant sums of money.
Oak Lane is on a small part of 36 acres once owned by deceased dentist Carey "Doc" Phillips along La. 73 in Prairieville. The land has been recognized for years by Ascension residents for its majestic live oaks and old white home.
The current small cemetery of a few acres still part of Oak Lane no longer includes the old home, which was bought by a different cemetery operation a few years ago.
Oak Lane Memorial Park Cemetery once included the entire Phillips site under former owner George M. Bonfanti, but he ran into financial trouble and came under board scrutiny as regulators found trust accounts that customers paid into for perpetual care and other costs were in arrears tens of thousands of dollars.
Though he had been convicted of bank fraud in the 1980s, the Louisiana Cemetery Board granted Bonfanti a license in 2008, finding he had been rehabilitated.
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After the board suspended that license, Bonfanti sold to NIS in 2014. NIS reapplied for a license while Bonfanti continued to sell "at-need" plots, which are bought after someone dies, on NIS's behalf.
At one point, board officials charged in court papers that the sale to NIS was a scheme to get around the license suspension. At the time denial of NIS in September 2015, cemetery board members and their attorney questioned NIS's links to Bonfanti.
But NIS, Dodd and Craft have disputed continuing links to Bonfanti and, since the denial, have called into question the cemetery board's independence and ability render fair decisions.
Though the board defended the decision and its motives, the board recused itself last year and Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed an entire ad hoc board in June.
Among the conditions under Monday's settlement, NIS must remain current with all perpetual care and trust fund accounts, acknowledge all contracts held by Oak Lane Memorial Park LLC and ratify all contracts that NIS had reached since the company took over from Bonfanti in April 2014. NIS must also get a required zoning plan from parish government and other local licenses and permits.
The agreement also bars NIS from employing convicted felons.
Craft said NIS has put thousands of dollars into Oak Lane trust accounts and said her clients immediately repudiated their connections to Bonfanti.
"My client, just like a lot of other people, got fugabooed by Mr. Bonfanti," she said.
Despite settlement conditions, the agreement carves out a contract dispute between NIS and the owner of the large family plot that is in court in Ascension.
Ryland Percy III, an attorney who represents Karen Sue Giles, the family plot owner, objected to the settlement before the board voted.
"All we were asking for is a complete hearing on the merits concerning this matter and what happened to Mrs. Giles and her family, and we were denied that opportunity by this board," Percy said in a later interview.
The board's agenda did not say members planned to meet in closed session, as state law requires when one is reasonably expected.
When questioned, George Papale, attorney for the ad hoc board, said shortly before the body headed back into closed session Monday afternoon, that litigation wasn't anticipated but came up in discussion of the settlement.
That litigation involved NIS, Giles and the Cemetery Board, Papale confirmed. Giles, Oak Lane and NIS have been engaged in litigation for more than three years.