Woodford funeral home owner faces board over sex-case conviction

gkocher1@herald-leader.comFebruary 5, 2013 

Versailles funeral home owner Steve Ward should be penalized in light of his 2012 guilty plea to sexual misconduct with a minor, an attorney for the Kentucky Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors argued Tuesday.

"I believe that his license should be revoked permanently," said Kathleen Kearney Schell.

But Debra Dawahare, Ward's attorney, argued that Ward has "suffered sufficiently for the misdemeanor he pled to," and asked the five-member board to "not penalize him."

"Many in the community felt he was railroaded," Dawahare said.

The closing arguments came at the end of a two-day hearing in Lexington before the board, whose primary purpose is to protect consumers and to license funeral directors and funeral homes. The board's decision will not be made public until a signed order is entered into the record, said hearing officer Susan Durant. That could take days or weeks.

Under state law, the board appointed by the governor has authority to take action against a funeral director "committing any act which constitutes unprofessional, fraudulent, misleading, corrupt, deceptive or dishonest conduct."

Ward, owner of Blackburn and Ward Funeral Home in Versailles, was granted shock probation in September after serving nearly four months of a year-long sentence for sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor. Ward pleaded guilty in May to engaging in "deviant sexual intercourse" with a 14-year-old boy. Five other counts of third-degree sodomy were dismissed.

Despite the guilty plea, Ward "maintains his innocence" and "has asserted that he entered his guilty plea to avoid more serious charges," according to records filed with Frankfort Circuit Court.

The documents were filed in Frankfort, home of the board office, when Ward sought to continue the administrative hearing to another date. But Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate issued an order Monday that the Lexington hearing should proceed.

Dawahare said in her closing argument that Ward made a decision "to avoid a trial that could have gone either way, so, faced with that choice, he agreed to a deal."

Ward "now faces the possibility of losing a license to practice in his profession," Dawahare said.

"Steve is a good man, generous to a fault," she added.

Special Judge Bill Clouse, who presided over the criminal case, didn't view Ward as a threat to anyone in approving shock probation and early release from jail, Dawahare said. If Ward had brought dishonor to the funeral profession, "his own community would have risen up against him," Dawahare said.

Instead, the community continues to support Ward and to patronize the funeral home, she said.

Ward was Woodford County coroner for 20 years but lost a bid for re-election in 2010 to Ronald Eugene Owens.

Schell, the board attorney, argued that even though this was Ward's first time before the panel, it is one of "the most serious and egregious" cases to come before the group.

"No testimony has been given here that there was anything false or anything to be gained by the young man except maybe justice," Schell said.

Before closing arguments, the board also heard from character witnesses who praised Ward, including the Rev. Rebecca Peterson, assistant pastor at Versailles United Methodist Church. Ward attends services there.

"I think people who know Steve don't believe those charges are true," Peterson said.

Even if the board finds that Ward acted unprofessionally and revokes his license, the funeral home could still operate if there are other employees who are licensed embalmers and funeral directors to operate it, Schell said.

If the decision goes against him, Ward could also appeal to the Franklin Circuit Court.

The hearing coincided with the mid-winter conference of the Funeral Directors Association of Kentucky at the Hilton Lexington Downtown.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305.Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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