GONZALES — The operator of a financially troubled Prairieville cemetery facing a Louisiana Cemetery Board investigation must comply with a board subpoena and turn over the business’ records by the end of the week, a state district judge ruled Monday.
State board officials have said in court papers they suspect Oak Lane Memorial Park cemetery in Ascension Parish was sold in April to evade expected board directives stemming from the board’s look at the cemetery’s finances.
On May 15, the board found Oak Lane had not paid $42,408 into a perpetual care trust fund to keep up grave sites long term, though the cemetery had received payments from customers. Also, another $33,638 has not been put into a separate trust fund to develop a group of pre-purchased grave sites known as the Giles addition, according to the board’s order.
The board said Oak Lane used the money for other business purposes and, in its May order, barred the group from selling any more “pre-need” grave sites as of Aug. 1. Oak Lane can still sell graves for someone who has died and can bury people who have sites already and have died.
United Community Bank also foreclosed on the cemetery’s loan, alleging more than $3 million in principal and interest are unpaid. About 28 to 30 acres of undeveloped land at the cemetery off La. 73 that still secure the loan are headed to a sheriff’s sale Nov. 19.
The remaining developed property with graves on it has been dedicated as a cemetery in perpetuity, records show. Under state law, dedicated cemetery property is exempt from taxation and can’t be mortgaged, seized or sold for debt.
The state Cemetery Board filed suit against Oak Lane on Oct. 3 in the 23rd Judicial District seeking to hold the company in contempt for not turning over its records to the state.
But Tim Pujol, Oak Lane’s attorney, told Judge Ralph Tureau of the 23rd Judicial District on Monday that the cemetery had offered to open up its offices to the board so officials could look at any of its records.
“What we’re really arguing about here is whether they should drive to Prairieville or we should drive to Baton Rouge,” Pujol said.
Ryan M. Seidemann, assistant attorney general who is representing the Cemetery Board, contended Oak Lane has not complied with the subpoena. He said the board did not want anyone put in jail but was following the procedure to obtain the records. Seidemann said the procedure requires the cemetery to provide the records.
Pujol said the operation is down to one person, George Bonfanti, the former cemetery owner who is now cemetery manager, and he does not have the ability to copy the multiple boxes of records dating back to 2013 that the board is seeking.
Seidemann told Tureau that once Bonfanti delivers the records to the Attorney General’s Office, copying would begin quickly so the records could be returned.
Seidemann said any records that Bonfanti needs while they are being copied can be sent to him by email. The subpoena seeks a variety of financial records.
What Oak Lane officials had not told the board at the time, the board alleges, was that National Information Services Inc., of Baton Rouge, owned the cemetery after NIS purchased it for $3 million in April. At the same time, Oak Lane and Bonfanti still operate the cemetery under a 25-year management agreement.
The board’s discovery of the sale, which came after NIS applied for a cemetery certificate of authority in June, prompted the current probe, the board says in its suit.
Cemetery officials have disputed the scheme allegations the board raised in the October suit and are appealing the board’s May order.
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