The Louisiana Cemetery Board refused to issue an operational license to the owner of a financially troubled graveyard in Prairieville after a hearing this week in which the board chairman claimed the owner “doesn’t have his heart where it should be” to run a cemetery.
The unanimous decision allows Lawrence Dodd and his Baton Rouge company, National Information Services Inc., to sell at-need plots — those needed after someone dies — and to bury those with plots already at Oak Lane Memorial Park cemetery off La. 73.
But the decision requires Dodd to put all proceeds toward nearly $83,000 in shortfalls left by the previous cemetery owner in trusts ensuring graves are built and cared for as their owners were promised. Dodd had insisted he should not be responsible for the vast majority of the back due money.
With no license, the cemetery remains blocked from lucrative sales of pre-need plots, which the board has prevented at Oak Lane since the former owner’s license was suspended Aug. 1, 2014, after financial shortfalls and other problems were uncovered. Pre-need plots and cemetery merchandise are sold before someone dies.
The decision affects about three acres of the original Oak Lane where graves are located. The remaining 29 acres, which has a home, other buildings and mostly undeveloped land, was taken back by the bank last year and, in late June, sold to a new cemetery, Serenity Oaks Memorial Park.
The rejection of Dodd’s license came Tuesday after more than four-and-a-half hours of detailed questioning from the board and its special counsel, Jerry W. Sullivan. Major topics were Dodd’s relationships with the former cemetery owner and manager, George M. Bonfanti, and his associates; Dodd’s apparent lack of interest in halting Bonfanti’s continued management of the cemetery even after Bonfanti sold the graveyard; and Dodd’s plans to build graves in a road that provides access to an isolated family grave in litigation.
“I see no character that says he’s going to operate the cemetery any different next year, next week, two years from now,” Gerald Melancon, board chairman, said Tuesday. “He is not a cemetery person. He doesn’t have his heart where it should be as far as a cemetery goes.”
The board regulates cemeteries and serves as a consumer protection watchdog since cemeteries are routinely entrusted with tens of thousands of dollars to fulfill long-term burial plans. The board must determine whether cemetery applicants and their companies are “financially responsible, trustworthy and have good personal and business reputations.”
Sullivan claimed Dodd had abdicated his authority over the cemetery and left it to Bonfanti, who was convicted of bank fraud in 1989, and others.
Bonfanti, who did not return a message for comment Wednesday, was an original owner of Oak Lane, but came under scrutiny from the board over financial shortfalls and other problems in recent years.
Bonfanti had a cemetery management contract with Dodd after selling Oak Lane in April 2014. Dodd claimed Tuesday the contract was voided months later.
Dodd said he was removing himself from cemetery operations because he did not want to act without a license, violate state cemetery law and face criminal sanctions. Dodd said he received a letter from an assistant attorney general in December warning him of as much, though Sullivan claimed Dodd was overstating it.
Sullivan’s comments came after Dodd acknowledged Bonfanti sold 77 grave plots after the cemetery changed hands, but Dodd has never received any proceeds despite facing large shortfalls in the trusts.
Dodd also said that daily finances are being handled by a bookkeeper in Texas who is the daughter of Gerald E. “Jerry” Fackrell Jr., an old business partner of Bonfanti who was convicted with him in the 1989 bank fraud scheme.
Fackrell also happens to be one of Dodd’s friends dating back to the 1960s while Fackrell’s wife was one of Bonfanti’s partners in Oak Lane.
Dodd contended the bookkeeper has deep knowledge of the cemetery’s history and customer base.
Under questioning, Dodd admitted he never visited Oak Lane to see what was going on nor got all cemetery records from Bonfanti until August.
“Based on the information that came out in the hearing, I think it strains belief that Mr. Dodd and Mr. Bonfanti don’t continue to have a serious business relationship,” R. Ryland Percy III, a Gonzales lawyer who represents the owner of cemetery property tied up in a lawsuit with Oak Lane and NIS, said Wednesday.
The board has had similar suspicions but they were not aired Tuesday.
As the regulatory noose tightened in April 2014 around Bonfanti, he sold Oak Lane to Dodd and NIS for $40,000 and a $200,000 promissory note that was later canceled.
In June 2014, less than a month after the board voted to suspend Bonfanti’s license, Dodd applied for a new cemetery license with Bonfanti as his manager. In a lawsuit last fall, the board claimed the setup was a scheme to circumvent Bonfanti’s suspension.
The Cemetery Board had found in 2008 that Bonfanti rehabilitated himself from his conviction and was granted a license. Since then, Oak Lane has sold about 2,000 graves and has 600 customers, Dodd told the board.
A state district judge in Jefferson Parish upheld Bonfanti’s suspension in February.