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FEMA, La. outsource Katrina body count to firm implicated in body-dumping scandals
by Miriam Raftery    The Raw Story
Entered into the database on Wednesday, September 14th, 2005 @ 11:39:31 MST


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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has hired Kenyon International to set up a mobile morgue for handling bodies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, RAW STORY has learned.

Kenyon is a subsidiary of Service Corporation International (SCI), a scandal-ridden Texas-based company operated by a friend of the Bush family. Recently, SCI subsidiaries have been implicated in illegally discarding and desecrating corpses.

Louisiana governor Katherine Blanco subsequently inked a contract with the firm after talks between FEMA and the firm broke down. Kenyon's original deal was secured by the Department of Homeland Security.

In other words, FEMA and then Blanco outsourced the body count from Hurricane Katrina -- which many believe the worst natural disaster in U.S. history -- to a firm whose parent company is known for its "experience" at hiding and dumping bodies.

The Menorah Gardens cemetery chain, owned by SCI, desecrated vaults, removed hundreds of bodies from two cemeteries in Florida and dumped the gruesome remains in woods frequented by wild hogs, investigators discovered in 2001. In one case, a backhoe was used to crack open a vault, remove corpses and make room for more dead bodies.

SCI paid $100 million to settle a lawsuit filed by outraged family members of the deceased.

A secretary at the lawfirm that sued SCI over the Florida cemetery scandals gasped when informed that FEMA had outsourced handling of Katrina victims' bodies to an SCI subsidiary.

"Oh, good lord!" she said.

Peter Hartmann, general manager of the Menorah Gardens Cemetery chain, was later found dead in his car from carbon monoxide poisoning outside his parents' home in an apparent suicide.

RAW STORY calls to FEMA were not returned.

Waltrip, chairman of SCI, is a longtime friend of Bush's father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush. The firm's political action committee donated $45,000 to George W. Bush's 1994 gubernatorial campaign.

The company also contributed more than $100,000 for construction of the George H.W. Bush presidential library.

"It is appalling that the Bush administration –- which has already badly bungled its response to hurricane Katrina –- would hire a company with a record of gross mismanagement of mortuary services," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group. "I can only imagine that this decision was made because of President Bush's long-time friendship with the head of SCI, Robert Waltrip."

SCI also owned fifteen funeral homes named as defendants in a lawsuit filed on behalf of family members alleging "macabre mishandling, abuse and desecration of bodies" by Tri-State Crematory in Georgia. The lawsuit accused SCI-owned funeral homes of sending bodies to the unlicensed, unregulated crematorium, where never-incinerated corpses were found piled outdoors and stuffed in sheds in 2000.

Some vaults designed to hold one body each had 67 sets of human remains stuffed inside, investigators discovered. SCI was among the companies ordered to pay settlement fees to family members, a legal source has confirmed to RAW STORY.

Kenyon bills itself as the world's leading disaster management company. It provided morgue support services following the 9/11 plane crash in Pennsylvania and the Asian tsunami.

As North America's largest funeral and cemetery company, SCI operates 1,500 mortuaries and cemeteries nationwide.

The company's website claims the firm is dedicated to "compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor."

SCI was also involved in an earlier scandal in Texas. Eliza May, former Texas Funeral Service Commission Director, filed a lawsuit accusing George W. Bush, then Governor, of obstructing an investigation into SCI license violations. May was fired following a dispute with Waltrip.

Waltrip and an SCI lobbyist met with Governor Bush's chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh (Allbaugh was later appointed head of FEMA after Bush became President, but left to become a lobbyist representing Halliburton, among other corporate clients).

According to Newsweek, Bush stopped by and said to Waltrip, "Hey, Bobby, are those people still messing with you?"

May, a Democrat, sought to force Bush to testify in the case, but in August 1999, a Texas judge tossed out a subpoena issued by May's lawyers for Bush to give a deposition. Bush, who was not a defendant, called May's claims "frivolous" and denied knowing the circumstances of her ouster.

In 1999, when Bush was gearing up to run for the presidency, Texas Governor Rick Perry approved a settlement for May. SCI paid $55,000; the state of Texas shelled out the balance without admitting wrongdoing in May's termination.

Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), expressed concern over FEMA's choice of an SCI subsidiary and questioned whether the selection was made through a no-bid process.

"The tragedy in the Gulf States must not be compounded by disrespecting those who have died," Crider told RAW STORY. "It's critical that government contracts be subjected to scrutiny to ensure that there has been no fraud or abuse of taxpayer money or interest."

Democrats have called for formation of an anti-fraud commission to investigate no-bid contracts awarded in relation to Hurricane Katrina, she added.

Why FEMA chose to outsource mortuary services to a paid contractor is also mystery to Dan Buckner, co-owner of the Gowen-Smith Chapel in the Gulf area. Buckner had planned to serve with the Disaster Mortuary Operational Responses Team, which reportedly told Buckner's partner, Gary Hicks of Paducah, KY, to expect up to 40,000 deaths from Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Upon learning of Kenyon’s contract, Buckner expressed puzzlement. He told the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, "Volunteers would have gone at no charge."

Clarification: After FEMA began working with Kenyon, they were subsequently contracted by Louisiana Governor Blanco. It was Louisiana that signed a formal contract.