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Coast coroner swears he's 'color blind.' Payments show he's not, black funeral homes say.

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove, left, leaves the federal courthouse in Gulfport on Monday, April 16, 2018, with attorney Joe Sam Owen, who is defending him against charges that he discriminates by giving white-owned funeral homes most of the county's business. Hargrove and the county maintain he selects funeral homes in few cases and is fair when he does.
Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove, left, leaves the federal courthouse in Gulfport on Monday, April 16, 2018, with attorney Joe Sam Owen, who is defending him against charges that he discriminates by giving white-owned funeral homes most of the county's business. Hargrove and the county maintain he selects funeral homes in few cases and is fair when he does. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove told a jury in federal court that he does not see color when spending public money with funeral homes, but attorneys for six black-owned funeral homes say the proof is in the numbers, which show two white-owned companies receive the vast majority of the business.

David Owens, a Chicago attorney for the black-owned funeral homes, called Hargrove to the witness stand Wednesday afternoon and questioned him for more than two hours.

Hargrove returns to the stand Thursday morning in U.S. District Court, where Judge Keith Starrett is presiding. Hargrove and the county will present their case next.

Hargrove investigates about 50 to 55 percent of the deaths each year in Harrison County, adding up to 5,821 cases during the period the defense has focused on: 2012 to mid-2016.

In coroner's cases, Hargrove has jurisdiction over a body when an autopsy is needed, the body is unclaimed, or no family or loved one is available to select a funeral home and the deceased is without pre-arrangements.

Owens asked if the coroner thought he had treated all funeral homes fairly.

"I've been fair to all the funeral homes, yes," Hargrove testified. "When I go out on a death, I don't see color. I see it as my job to take care of (the deceased) in the best way I can."

Owens asked, "Color blind, right?"

"Absolutely," Hargrove said, "I always have been."

Owens then reviewed county payments showing that 80.38 percent of the money went to Riemann's from 2012-2016, with Bradford-O'Keefe receiving most of the remaining funds.

Hargrove said that was because the county's forensic pathologist, a private contractor, insisted on performing his autopsies at Riemann's.

But after the pathologist died in January 2015 and autopsies were moved to Jackson, Owens produced numbers intended to show black funeral homes continued to be cut out.

He reviewed 2015-2016 with Hargrove, when Riemann received $6,750 from the county and Bradford-O'Keefe $7,600.

Owens then asked Hargrove how many black-owned funeral homes received more than $1,000 in business from the county during the same time period.

"None," Hargrove said.

In the majority of cases where no autopsy is needed, Hargrove said, loved ones decide where a body will go. He said that he uses a rotation system in the "miniscule" number of cases where he is able.

But he also acknowledged that he has not reduced these policies to writing for his assistants during his 21-plus years in office. If he had known he was going to be sued, he said, he would have put the policies in writing.

He said he could not remember the last time he had been in one of the black-owned funeral homes, Dickey Brothers Memorial Funeral Home, to draw fluids from a body. Owens indicated Hargrove had not been to Dickey Brothers since 2012.

The county's attorney, Tim Holleman of Gulfport, said during open arguments earlier in the week that the white-owned funeral homes also are used more often because they are the only ones with adequate cooler space for bodies that must be stored, in some cases for unknown periods of time.

But Owens pointed out in cases where Hargrove has to draw fluid all he needs is running water.

Owens will resume cross-examination of Hargrove on Thursday morning.

Before Hargrove took the stand, an owner of Richmond-August Funeral Home, testified that where bodies are sent is about more than the $150 removal fee the county pays funeral homes for transporting bodies.

Jonathan August, a banker in Virginia who helps manage the books at Richmond-August, said the coroner's office referred two cases to the family business from 2012-2016.

Private insurance was available for burial of one of those bodies, with a full service that resulted in a payment of $9,846. The funeral homes also say they earn more business from families pleased with their services after a referral from the coroner.

Anita Lee can be reached at 228-896-2331 or @CAnitaLee1
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