When her father died of natural causes while visiting the area in August, King's College student Belinda Coulibaly asked one of the responding Luzerne County deputy coroners how she could get his body back to the Ivory Coast in West Africa.
Coulibaly, of Wilkes-Barre, said the deputy coroner told her he could help her and gave her his cellphone number. When she later called, he emailed an estimate for transport through his private funeral home business.
She has filed an ethics complaint because the county's new home rule ethics code bans coroners from soliciting, discussing or accepting business for a funeral home with which they are associated while they're engaged in county business.
The code goes as far as barring deputy coroners from recommending any funeral home services while they're engaged in county business.
County Council added the prohibitions in response to a long-running complaint that the county's reliance on funeral directors as deputy coroners creates the potential for them to acquire private clients through county work.
The name of the deputy coroner was withheld by The Times Leader pending adjudication of the complaint.
The deputy coroner disputes the claim against him, saying he is aware of the restriction and goes out of his way to abide by it. When responding as coroner, he said he always tells people they must contact a funeral home for further assistance and directs them to the phone book if they don't have an existing relationship with a particular funeral business.
The subject of the complaint, one of more than 30 funeral directors who work as deputy coroners, said he is free to accept business through his private funeral home if people contact him, unsolicited, after his interactions with them as a coroner have concluded.
The commission does not release details about complaints, but complaint filers are permitted to disclose the information. Filers must sign an oath on the complaint form swearing that they are telling the truth.
Coulibaly, 21, said she wouldn't have known to call the deputy coroner about transport if he hadn't offered his services and provided his personal contact number. She said she wasn't familiar with the process of transporting the deceased, and he never told her she needed a funeral home and was free to contact anyone.
"He said, ‘I can help you' with transport while he was working as a county coroner," she said.
Coulibaly, a native of the Ivory Coast living here to attend classes, said she later spoke to her uncle, who recommended a different local funeral home.
The relative also informed her about the ban on funeral directors seeking business while they're working as coroners.
"It's a problem of trust," Coulibaly said. "I was in shock over my father's death. I wasn't thinking, so he kind of took advantage of that."
Local funeral home director Patrick Lehman, who does not work as a deputy coroner, has been supportive of Coulibaly's willingness to publicly describe what happened and file a complaint.
"Some deputy coroners – not all – use that public position as a platform to introduce a family to their private business," Lehman said.
Luzerne County for decades has relied on funeral home owners or employees to respond as deputy coroners when someone dies outside a health care setting.
Coroners have argued the past practice makes sense because funeral directors are accustomed to dealing with death and have access to vehicles that may be needed to transport the deceased to the county morgue.
Deputy coroners are paid $65 to $100 to view a body and $100 to transport the deceased to the county morgue.
Lehman, president of Lehman Family Funeral Service and the Rosenberg Funeral Chapel, both in Wilkes-Barre, has urged the county to follow the example of counties that use emergency responders, health care workers or people with law enforcement backgrounds to cover deputy coroner work.
"There's not another job in the world that can take someone that provides funeral services for their livelihood and put them at that moment in time with that grieving family on the worst day of their life when their guard is obviously down," Lehman said.
Ethics complaints are heard by a commission of two citizens, the county district attorney, county controller and county manager.
The commission has the option to recommend a range of punishment, including reprimands, suspensions, dismissals and fines.