10-day extension OK’d in cemetery funds case

Published 10:24 pm Thursday, February 5, 2009

A judge has given Mississippi officials more time to search for records to reveal what happened to money missing from a private cemetery’s trust fund — a search that now extends to five states.

Attorneys for the secretary of state’s office told Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes on Monday that the search now extends from Mississippi to Alabama, Texas, Kansas and Missouri, where the owners of Vicksburg’s Green Acres Memorial Park have holdings.

Barnes gave the state 10 more days to collect the records to support a request that the cemetery continue operating under court oversight.

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The state has asked Barnes to oversee the cemetery amid allegations that the owners, Mike Graham and Associates of Houston, Texas, have not maintained reserves required by law. Last month, Barnes froze company accounts while the secretary of state gathered more information.

Another hearing in Warren County Chancery Court is scheduled for Feb. 12.

The 15-acre cemetery on U.S. Highway 80 is the Vicksburg area’s only commercial, for-profit cemetery.

A portion of the money families pay for plots and opening and closing graves goes into a reserve to pay for continuing maintenance, such as mowing, landscaping, drainage and road work.

Families may also pre-purchase vaults and markers and pay opening and closing costs. It’s those funds that are gone, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann contends, meaning there’s no assurance the goods or services will be provided.

In a complaint in January, Hosemann asked the court to order the company to pay back the missing trust funds, but no one has appeared in court to answer the complaint or explain what happened to the money.

Hosemann said he spoke with Linda Graham, the wife of the late Mike Graham, and she said two employees would remain in Vicksburg for the time being. However, he said, Graham could not assure him that vaults and other prepaid services would be provided as needed.

Hosemann filed the complaint under the Mississippi Pre-Need Act, which was enacted to regulate prepaid funds and contracts. Under the law, a cemetery must deposit 85 percent of money prepaid for burial and related services. The maximum civil penalty under the act is $1,000 per violation.

The cemetery was established in 1955 and operated by Joe Varner for 30 years until his death in 1989. After a succession of operators, it was purchased by Graham in 2001. A number of liens and personal lawsuits had been filed against the company in the years leading up to the current probe, according to Warren County Chancery Court records.

At least one burial has taken place at Green Acres since Jan. 22. The cemetery has about 3,200 graves.