Kelley explains costs; Bridy's 'friend' weighs in
COAL TOWNSHIP - A Coal Township man who plans to run next year against Northumberland County Coroner and longtime funeral director James F. Kelley believes it was unethical for Kelley to submit a $5,755 bill for funeral services for a 16-year-old boy who died in January while in foster care through Children and Youth Services.
Leo Mirolli Jr., a Democrat, supports the decision by county Commissioner Stephen Bridy, an independent, to hold an impromptu press conference April 30 to report that Kelley may have committed a conflict-of-interest violation by submitting the bill since he is employed by the county.
While Mirolli discussed the bill and his relationship with Bridy during a telephone interview earlier this week, Kelley maintains he did nothing wrong in submitting the bill, explained his reasons for some of the services and noted that the bill covered two separate viewings and funerals for the family.
The complaint filed against Kelley is under review by the criminal division of the state Attorney General's Office, according to a spokeswoman for
ney Richard Sheetz, who serves as executive deputy attorney general in Harrisburg. Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini, who was asked by the commissioners to investigate the case, referred the complaint to the Attorney General's Office because he is a friend of Kelley and has worked with the coroner for years in criminal homicide investigations.
Not political ploy
Mirolli denied Bridy's press conference was a political ploy to make Kelley look bad for his gain. Commissioner Rick Shoch had made that claim, saying when Bridy brought his concerns to the attention of the other commissioners, he disclosed that he had a friend who was planning to run against Kelley in the next election. Bridy denied that allegation.
"It has nothing to do with that," Mirolli said. "I've been considering running for coroner for 10 years."
The 41-year-old Coal Township resident, who grew up in Marion Heights, said he knew Bridy when they wrestled together on the elementary level at Mount Carmel Area. But Mirolli said he hadn't spoken to Bridy until last year during his campaign for commissioner.
"I mostly followed his campaign on Facebook and we talked a couple times," he said, "but we certainly aren't lifelong friends."
Mirolli earned a degree in funeral service education in 2007 from Northampton County Area Community College in Bethlehem and became a licensed funeral director, although his license has been inactive since 2010.
Mirolli admitted to posting the funeral services bill submitted by Kelley on Facebook. He said the bill wasn't provided to him by Bridy. "I got the bill from an anonymous source," he said. It is a public document, and the child's name is blacked out.
He said the reaction he's received on Facebook has been mixed. "It's about 50-50," he said. "Some people say Steve (Bridy) was wrong for having a press conference without first conferring with Mr. Kelley, while others think Steve is just looking out for the taxpayers."
He added, "But when I posted the bill on Facebook, my e-mails were on fire."
Mirolli said he has nothing personal against Kelley and pointed out that his son, Leo, worked at Kelley's funeral home at one time.
"I'm not doing this to hurt his reputation or to get myself elected coroner," Mirolli said. "I posted the bill on Facebook because I got into a defensive mode after Commissioner Rick Shoch accused Mr. Bridy of exposing the bill for political purposes. That isn't why Steve went public with the issue."
As for how Bridy approached the matter, Mirolli stated, "If Steve would have approached Kelley personally about the bill, I believe Steve would have been part of a cover-up. It's just a sticky situation."
Mirolli believes Kelley's bill for the funeral services was unethical and not in the best interests of taxpayers.
"It's a slippery slope with him being a funeral director and county coroner," he said.
Mirolli acknowledged that Kelley, who also is a Democrat, has been very generous to families seeking his services in the past and the community in general.
In further explaining his position, Kelley said Wednesday he conducted two viewings and funerals in opposite ends of the county for the teen, who died Jan. 20 in Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg in Union County. He explained the separate services were requested by the boy's parents, who are estranged.
Bridy reported at the press conference that the teen committed suicide. But Union County Coroner Wanda Walters said Wednesday the death remains under investigation and neither a cause nor manner of death has been released.
Kelley said a casket, for which the county was charged $1,062.50, was needed for the viewings. It was later burned as part of the cremation. An urn, costing $350, was used as a receptacle for the cremains.
The coroner said the teen's funeral expenses were lower than most of his services, and that they are justified.
The $5,755.50 bill included $2,190 for professional services including embalming, dressing, casketing, cosmetology and preparation of the autopsied remains, $625 for facilities, staff and equipment, $725 for automotive equipment, and $1,512.50 for selected merchandise including a casket, register book, prayers cards and an urn.
Kelley said a direct cremation doesn't require the body to be embalmed. He said a body can't be cremated until 24 hours after a death. After 24 hours, the body must be either embalmed, refrigerated or placed in an air-tight container. He said a public viewing cannot be held without embalming the body and noted any cremation must be authorized by the county coroner.
He said some funeral homes use caskets containing inserts for cremations that can be utilized again once the inserts are removed. But Kelley said his funeral home doesn't use caskets with inserts because it's not cost-effective.
"We show families three different caskets made of combustible material that are made specifically for cremations," Kelley said. "In this case, we used the least expensive casket."
As for the potential conflict of interest, Kelley has said that there was none because he wasn't involved in the death investigation because the boy died in Union County.
Bridy has cited a section of the County Code that says a public official cannot enter a contract valued at $500 or more with the governmental body with which he or she is associated.
Kelley, who is still disturbed that Bridy failed to call him to explain the bill before holding a press conference without his knowledge, doesn't recall his funeral home handling arrangements for Children and Youth Services in the past. But Kelley said he has provided funeral services for the state involving homicide victims that he was reimbursed for through the Pennsylvania Victims Compensation Fund administered through the Attorney General's Office.
Kelley also said he has paid for children's funerals numerous times over the years at no expense to the families of the deceased.
He previously said, "I welcome anybody to look into this. I did nothing wrong. I've done my job appropriately for more than 22 years in the coroner's office, including the past 10 as coroner. I've been a funeral home director since 1985 and I have never had my morals or ethics questioned in that time."
Kelley reserved further comment at the advice of his solicitor, attorney Daniel J. Rheam, Lewisburg.
Northumberland County Children and Youth Services Administrator Jennifer Willard, who previously said there were no restrictions on what funeral homes can charge for services for children in foster care, said she's not aware of any written policy in the county regarding funeral expenses.
Willard, who previously admitted she told Kelley to submit a bill to her office for the funeral services, declined to comment further on the subject earlier this week.
Controller Tony Phillips, who brought the bill to the commissioners' attention, said, "I wasn't looking at this as an ethics violation. I just wanted the commissioners to get a written policy or procedure in place to protect the county in the future."
Phillips said he was initially told there were no restrictions on bills submitted by funeral homes for children in foster care, but said the county code states there is a $300 limit for such funerals.
"I just didn't want to hand over a blank check to someone so they can take advantage of the county," Phillips said. "It could be double the amount next time. We must protect the taxpayers in this situation because they are the ones picking up the tab."