Company Hired to Handle Katrina's Dead Has Tainted History

On Wednesday the official death toll from Katrina jumped to 474. More than 400 of those bodies are now being held for autopsy at two locations in the Baton Rouge area. All those bodies are now producing a brand new public relations nightmare for state officials. This time, it involves the hiring of the world's largest funeral corporation to handle the job of recovering the dead. But it's a company we've learned has a tainted history of legal troubles.

According to the Department of Health and Hospitals, Kenyon International has been in charge of recovering and handling Hurricane Katrina's dead without a contract since last Wednesday. That contract was finally inked these past few days by Governor Kathleen Blanco, who obviously felt FEMA was dragging its feet.

Even before Katrina hit, the accusations and criticisms for both federal and local leaders were endless. First, national attacks on the slow search and rescue efforts, and now more trouble concerning the recovery of Katrina's dead. Governor Blanco has just inked the deal with Kenyon International to lead body recovering efforts. The only problem -- Kenyon's parent company is Service Corporation International, a scandal-ridden, Texas-based company accused in a number of lawsuits for illegally discarding and desecrating corpses.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals says it was unaware of the company's legal troubles and was only doing what the governor had asked.

"We're going to do what the governor's office ask us to do," said DHH representative Bob Johannessen. "They wanted this firm to work here and we facilitated to have that contract signed."

When asked if the governor requested a background check on the company, Johannessen replied he didn't know.

The deal signed between Kenyon International and DHH is a two-month contract that runs from September 12th to November 15th. Kenyon will be paid a ten percent discounted daily rate of $119,000. Kenyon also says estimated expenses for the first 31 days should total roughly $639,000.

Kenyon, however, has already been involved in recovering dead bodies in New Orleans and other areas since last Wednesday.

According to DHH, the understanding was that FEMA was originally going to contract with Kenyon International, but after those talks failed, Governor Blanco stepped in to finalized the deal.

Kenyon International is part of Service Corporation International, which is the largest funeral provider in the world, owning many of the most prestigious funeral homes in the world. But 9 News has learned it's a troubled company.

Service Corporation International is headquartered in Houston, Texas. Its CEO and founder is said to be personal friends with the Bush family, prompting some controversial headlines regarding presidential influence. In recent years, the giant firm has been sued in several states for its mishandling of bodies, just the thing Governor Blanco alluded to on Tuesday when she took the handling of Katrina victims out of the hands of FEMA.

"The recovery of bodies is a FEMA responsibility, but I cannot stand by while vital operations are not handled properly," said Blanco. "In death, as in life, our people deserve more respect than they've received."

In 2003, SCI settled, for $100 million, a class action suit in Florida involving two of the companies' funeral homes. The suit made these allegations:

- The funeral homes broke open burial vaults and dumped remains in a wooded area to be consumed by wild animals

- Crushed down burial vaults to make room for other vaults

- Buried decedents on top of each other rather than side by side

- Dug up and removed remains

- Buried remains head to foot rather than side by side

- And mixed body parts and remains from different individuals.

We know of no similar allegations against Kenyon International itself, but the parent company is certainly tainted by allegations of price gouging and gruesome disrespect of the dead. We have tried by phone and email to get a response from Governor Blanco's office or from her. We do not know if she is aware of the troubles or legal problems accumulated by the company she has hired to handle the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims. We've had no response.

Reporters: Cyndi Nguyen and Paul Gates