- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

Citing “the ghoulish specter” of an unlicensed mortician running a funeral business, D.C. officials have sought to shut what they say was an illegal funeral establishment in Northeast.

But the owner says he’s being singled out unfairly by what he calls the “funeral cartel,” or other competitors trying to sabotage his business.

The city’s investigation into the Ridley Funeral Establishment began in November, after an anonymous call informing regulators that Keith A. Ridley IV was renting commercial space out of 1337 H St. NE, using the property to run a funeral home, according to officials.

According to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) records, inspectors found two embalming machines inside the three-story, brick building. Mr. Ridley does not have a funeral home director’s license, nor does he have a certificate of occupancy to conduct any business at the location, city officials said.

In a lawsuit filed by the District against Mr. Ridley in D.C. Superior Court, city attorneys argue they have evidence that Mr. Ridley “has engaged in or is about to engage in the unlicensed practice of funeral directing.”

“It is a ghoulish specter to contemplate an unlicensed and unqualified individual claiming to be a mortician literally desecrating the dead,” city attorneys argued in court pleadings.

However, Mr. Ridley said he’s never conducted any funeral business out of the H Street location. He said he was only getting the business affairs in order while seeking the appropriate licenses. Then, he said, he found out the District was suing him.

“All DCRA needed to do was call me, and they could have seen what we were doing,” he said.

“It was a waste of their time, the court’s time, my time and the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Mr. Ridley and the District entered into a consent order on Jan. 31, under which he agreed not to act as a funeral director or run the property as a funeral establishment without the proper licenses.

According to D.C. officials, Mr. Ridley had been advertising the business.

But Mr. Ridley disagreed: “We never advertised,” he said. “If anyone called for funeral services, I made it clear we have not opened yet.”

D.C. officials say they were justified in taking Mr. Ridley to court.

“The civil suit against Mr. Ridley is still pending, and the Office of the Attorney General is closely monitoring his actions,” said Traci Hughes, spokeswoman for the attorney general. “However, if he continues to run a funeral business without a license, criminal charges could be filed.”

Under D.C. law, people cannot operate a funeral services establishment unless also licensed as a funeral director. And a corporation or business partnership cannot operate a funeral establishment unless one of the owners is a licensed funeral director. Businesses must appoint a principal funeral director responsible for daily operations.

Mr. Ridley said he’s not a licensed funeral director, but he is working with a licensed mortician to handle the technical aspects of his business. He said that will bring the establishment into compliance with the law. He declined to identify the mortician, citing advice from his attorney.

“All of our people are duly licensed,” he said.

Mr. Ridley said he thinks the anonymous tip about his business to city regulators came from what he called “the funeral mafia” or “funeral cartel,” meaning various competitors seeking to keep the business from operating.

“The city is being pushed on by my competitors,” Mr. Ridley said.

Mr. Ridley said his family has been in the funeral home industry for several generations. The family business closed for several years after the death of his uncle, Mr. Ridley said.

Court records show the lawsuit isn’t his first run-in with law enforcement. In 1999, Mr. Ridley was charged in a felony tax case. He was sentenced to more than two years in prison and ordered to pay $53,000 in restitution, according to court records.

Mr. Ridley said the case has no bearing on his current situation.

“That’s almost 10 years ago,” he said. “That’s not here nor there.”

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