Former Burr Oak exec says memo 'political fodder'

February 2, 2010 4:19:56 PM PST
The ex-CEO of Burr Oak Cemetery says "a dark shadow" was cast when her confidential memo became the subject of a last-minute scrum in Illinois' Democratic Party primary for governor. The five-page memo, written in 2003 by then-CEO Slivy Edmonds Cotton and obtained last week by the ABC7 I-Team, revealed that top executives of Burr Oak knew that bodies had been improperly buried in the Alsip graveyard. The memo also stated that cemetery workers and executives of parent company Perpetua believed a grave-reselling scheme had been operated by the previous owners.

"I just returned last night from a two week vacation in Dubai and Uganda," Ms. Edmonds Cotton told the I-Team Tuesday afternoon. "I never expected to be in the middle of a primary race in Illinois. I am disappointed that my Memo (sic) has been used as political fodder" she wrote in an email response to our request for an interview last week.

The Burr Oak scandal was a central theme of unrelenting campaign attacks by Gov. Pat Quinn on his Democratic primary opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes. In TV commercials and in person, Quinn blamed Hynes for the tragedy in which hundreds of corpses had been dug up, moved and dumped in an elaborate scheme to re-sell burial plots.

The I-Team reported last week that Perpetua executives held at least one meeting with a high-ranking cemetery regulator from Hynes' office in Nov. 2003 to discuss the discovery of misplaced human remains. That official, currently the state comptroller's cemetery director, acknowledged there was a problem with human remains at Burr Oak in a follow-up email written in late 2003 and a letter on Hynes' official stationary in February 2004.

A Hynes spokesperson says that the detailed, five-page explanation written by Burr Oak's CEO wasn't given to the comptroller's office in 2003 and that state officials had no way to know that a grave re-selling scheme was underway. Hynes also maintains that his office isn't responsible for policing burial grounds-only keeping tracking of cemetery accounting

The public didn't learn about what was happening at the historic black cemetery in southwest suburban Alsip until last May, when a groundskeeper found some skeletons where they shouldn't have been.

Former Perpetua boss Edmonds Cotton tells the I-Team that she didn't turn over her revealing memo until the investigation began last year. "I supplied it to various entities in Illinois in an attempt to get the true story of what happened at Burr Oak out so that families could have some closure" she states.

According to her memo, workers in 2003 "discovered bones" and "human remains" and claimed "former owners routinely buried over or cleared out old graves for new business. The memo stated that executives feared "old remains were dumped" in a back lot.

It is unclear why Ms. Edmonds Cotton or other Perpetua executives didn't alert law enforcement or other government authorities of a problem at Burr Oak in 2003. Edmonds Cotton said Tuesday afternoon that she was unavailable for an interview due to jet lag.

In her email, the former cemetery company CEO reserved harsh criticism for news sources inside state government that leaked her confidential memo. "It seems that every agency uses it for its own purpose, with none interested in what really happened there. That is very sad and casts a dark shadow on the public's confidence in what is reported in the media."