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Burr Oak Memo Reveals Internal Conflicts About Cemetery Desecration

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Burr Oak Cemetery executives knew about the elaborate grave reselling scheme there as early as 2003, and discussed the issue with the comptroller's office, according to documents obtained by ABC-7 and the Capitol Fax blog.

Slivy Cotton, chief executive of Burr Oak Cemetery, issued a confidential memo on November 1, 2003, the Capitol Fax Blog reports. The memo contains two sections: "The Facts" and "Our Speculations."

In the "facts" section, Cotton writes that in cleaning up the back section of the cemetery, Perpetua, the company that owns Burr Oak, discovered "some bones that we believe to be human remains." Cotton also writes, "On several occasions, we have started to open graves that had been sold Pre-Need to discover that there were wood and bone fragments in the grave."

But her "speculations" are much more damning:

Before formal questioning began, one of the groundsmen said that he had heard that the former owners believed that if a grave was more than 50 years old, they could reuse it. They would often dig up any leftover fragments and dump them in the back.

And later in the memo:

We believe that former owners routinely buried over or cleared out graves for new business. ... We believe a lot of those old remains were dumped in the back section; that the groundsmen know it; and that is why they never found time to clean up that section.

While the memo shows Cotton wanting to present this information to Comptroller Dan Hynes' office, it was unclear how much Hynes actually knew about the possible desecration.

In the memo, Cotton says that Perpetua's law firm Foley and Lardner was uncomfortable presenting "speculations" about what was going on at the cemetery to Comptroller Hynes--who was personal friends with former Foley and Larder attorney Dick Phelan. Phelan would allegedly hesitate "to bring anything to the Comptroller that could be unpleasant," the memo states. Also, there was discussion as to whether the bones and wood discovered were not uncommon for such an old cemetery.

Other documents obtained by Capitol Fax show notes from a meeting between Cotton and Percy Lucina, Deputy Director of the Cemetery Care and Burial Trust Division of the comptroller's office. From an email to Lynn Singer, then director of that office:

The main problem they are encountering is the discovery of human remains while they were in the process of cleaning/excavating a portion of land where the majority of construction is to occur. Before they proceed any further, they would like us to enlighten them on their next step in the process.

In Lucina's response to Cotton, he writes:

The Cemetery Care division of the Office of the Comptroller only handles the licensure and regulation of cemeteries... We suggest you contact the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. It is possible that this agency may grant you permission to proceed, this Office cannot do so.

The email from Lucina coincides with what Hynes has been saying about the Burr Oak situation throughout the election--as Governor Pat Quinn was blaming him for ignoring the scandal:

"Our office doesn't have a role. We audit the books of cemeteries," Hynes told ABC-7. "It's shameful that the families of Burr Oak have to relive this and see this tragedy politicized because Pat Quinn wants to win an election."

"I told [ABC reporter Chuck Goudie] we had not seen [the memo], were not aware of the contents and the details of it were not discussed in the meeting," Hynes' campaign spokeswoman Carol Knowles told Huffington Post Chicago in an email. "I also told [Goudie] that if Ms. Cotton was aware of something illegal/inappropriate she should have immediately reported it to the appropriate legal authorities."

But in the same piece from ABC, Quinn brought the full-court press. "The Burr Oak Cemetery scandal is the worst scandal...in American history. Grave robbing going on and there was information about that in 2003. Why didn't the comptroller know about it? He's in charge of that office and they have a duty, he does, under law to make sure things are done right."

Quinn has challenged Hynes throughout the campaign with ads targeting his handling of Burr Oak. This latest revelation comes three days before Election Day, with recent polls showing Quinn trailing in his bid to hold on to office.