Congress expected
to expand mortuary
probe to Hawaii

A Florida congressman refers
to the owners of a Hilo funeral home
as heartless profiteers

Staff and news reports

A congressional inquiry into funeral home practices is expected to be expanded to include Hawaii, according to the office of a Florida congressman who called the case of a Big Island funeral home "heartless profiteering."

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., asked the General Accounting Office on Monday to look into Hawaii laws and alleged fraudulent practices at Memorial Mortuary in Hilo as part of the investigation it has agreed to conduct into recent cases of desecration at cemeteries and crematoriums in other states.

Last week, operators of the Hilo mortuary were arrested by agents from the state Attorney General's Office and then released without charges.

Memorial Mortuary owner Robert Diego, wife Momi Diego and daughter Bobbie Jean Diego have repeatedly denied allegations by some customers that bodies were not properly buried. They have said that the actual burials were done by a local cemetery, and not Memorial Mortuary.

Foley lashed out at the mortuary owners, however.

"These mourners' loved ones were buried in bags like yesterday's trash," he said. "The heartless profiteers responsible have not only desecrated human bodies, they have perverted the very essence of morality and decency."

One purpose of the congressional investigation would be to determine whether state laws, including Hawaii's, are adequate to prosecute such crimes, Foley said.

Some state lawmakers feel Hawaii's laws are inadequate. Members of the state House Consumer Protection Committee approved House Resolution 30 last week, which calls for the establishment of a task force to examine Hawaii's regulation of death services providers and to recommend changes to state laws, rules and policies. The House has yet to consider the legislation.

The Hawaii Funeral Directors Association supports the resolution.

"We really understand the sensitive nature of our work. If a provider breaks the law or engages in deceptive or wrong practices or doesn't live up to the community's trust, that provider needs to be held accountable," said Kenneth Ordenstein, association spokesman.

The congressional inquiry so far includes Georgia, Florida and California. A spokesman for Foley, Chris Paulitz, said the congressman expects Hawaii to be included, along with at least four other states to be picked at random.

A spokesman for the investigative office, Jeff Nelligan, said the inquiry likely would include Hawaii. He said it could involve visits to sites in any of the states as early as next month.

The national review of state laws and practices was prompted, in part, by a north Georgia case in which more than 300 corpses were found dumped in pits, left in sheds and stacked in vaults rather than being properly buried.

Earlier this month, the state of Florida sued a large burial company, claiming it misplaced remains and sold fake plots at two South Florida cemeteries. The suit also claims that workers dumped at least one body in a field where wild hogs roamed.

Consumer advocates long have complained about a patchwork of state laws regulating the funeral industry.

In his original request to congressional investigators, Foley asked for a look at Florida, Georgia and California, as well as a national sampling of states "to determine whether existing state laws are adequate to prosecute those responsible or these heinous acts."

Foley also asked U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to see if any federal laws had been violated in the Florida case.

The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter
Nelson Daranciang contributed to this report.

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