Crossfire at Ohio funeral board as director, Kasich appointee trade allegations of misconduct

Ohio Statehouse. (WDTN Photo/Paul Rodzinka)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An appointee of Gov. John Kasich is involved in an escalating dispute with the director of the state funeral board that has each accusing the other of misconduct.

The board, which licenses and regulates Ohio’s funeral professionals, is bracing for possible fireworks between the two at its meeting Monday.

Executive Director Vanessa Niekamp filed a series of harassment complaints against appointee Tommy Taneff in August, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.

Niekamp has directed the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors since 2012. She alleges Taneff started pressuring her shortly after joining the board in December.

In written notes of one conversation, she recalled Taneff saying her “neck was on the line” if she didn’t heed warnings passed along from the governor’s staff to take quick action against fraud in the pre-paid funeral services industry.

“Mr. Taneff has systematically threatened, demanded and made demands of me since joining the board,” her complaints to the state watchdog, personnel office and ethics commission alleged. “His personal malice and attempts to force me to quit have made me fearful and anxious.”

Records reviewed by the AP show Taneff also complained about Niekamp’s handling of other issues. Beginning early this year, emails show he questioned Niekamp over the keeping of board minutes, on meetings she held and people she spoke to, on her purchase of a video camera to record board meetings and on her procedures for resetting his laptop password.

Taneff, a Columbus lawyer, calls allegations of harassment “completely false.”

“There’s pushback and resistance from the good old boys,” Taneff said. “You’ve got the foxes guarding the henhouse. The guys that are in the funeral industry, they don’t want to change. They don’t like the idea of losing control or having someone else critique or oversight or review what they’re doing with respect to the sale or retention of pre-paid funeral funds.”

Taneff has lodged counterclaims alleging Niekamp altered public documents and practiced law without proper authorization. She denies the records charge and contends any legal work she’s done for the board was properly cleared.

Taneff wants Niekamp suspended from her $88,000-a-year post pending an investigation. He’s also called for the resignation of board chairman Gregory Boyer, a Waverly funeral director who stands by Niekamp and questions Taneff’s methods.

Other board members also question Taneff’s treatment of Niekamp. She’s filed a separate discrimination complaint suggesting he sought her ouster because she’s a woman over 40. That complaint has been turned over to the federal equal employment office, but her other complaints either lacked jurisdiction or were rejected as lacking merit.

This marks the second time in about a year that a state board director has alleged threatening behavior coming from the office of Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate.

A timeline created by Kyle Parker, fired as director of the state pharmacy board last September, described a top aide to Kasich threatening to “decimate” the board and ruin Parker’s reputation if the board didn’t fire him.

Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch made no apologies.

“Just as we have pushed innovation within the cabinet-level agencies of state government, we have challenged Ohio’s many boards and commissions to do the same and look to improve the programs and services they provide,” he said in a statement.

Exchanges between Taneff and Niekamp involved a September 2014 investigation by The Columbus Dispatch that found the industry-dominated funeral board was failing to proactively identify cases in which funeral homes failed to deliver services to consumers who had paid for them, sometimes in full, before death.

Such schemes have drawn attention nationally. Six officials at the now-defunct National Prearranged Funerals Inc., based in Missouri, received prison sentences in 2013 for fraud that cost customers around the country about $450 million.

The Dispatch was first to report the flap between Niekamp and Taneff. The newspaper reported Tuesday that the document Niekamp is accused of altering was an email between her and the Dispatch reporter who was investigating the board last fall.

Boyer said he finds Taneff’s behavior to Niekamp and the board inappropriate and unprofessional.

“I’ve never seen anybody treat people this way,” he said. “When I first came on the board, they always said our governor likes to shakes things up. I took that for me to come in as a businessman and to streamline things. And we’ve done that — we’ve gone to online license renewals, we’ve gone paperless, we cut our 2-day meeting to a 1-day meeting. I thought that’s what they meant by ‘shake things up,’ not this.”

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