Baytown veteran, state at odds over funeral director requirements

Saturday, November 11, 2023
Baytown veteran, state at odds over funeral director requirements
13 Investigates why the state asked a veteran to give back his funeral director license.

BAYTOWN, Texas (KTRK) -- When Desaray Wilson joined the military in 2003, he was stationed at Dover Air Force Base, where he provided mortuary services for soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"When you served in the civilian sector on the funeral side, you think you saw everything. Car accidents, babies, burn victims," Wilson said. "But with an IED (improvised explosive devices) ... the worst you can imagine, it's worse than that. It's just hard. It's difficult. And you've got to remember, these aren't older people. These are 19, 20, 21-year-olds that hadn't even discovered life or know what life is about."

Before joining the military, Wilson said his high school job was assisting with embalming and dressing at a funeral home. Wilson was honorably discharged after nearly a decade of service and wanted to open his own funeral home.

He made that dream come true and opened a funeral home in Baytown with a partner who is also a licensed funeral director. But it was only a short time before the state asked him to relinquish his license.

13 Investigates requested internal communications from the Texas Funeral Service Commission, which oversees licensing. After obtaining hundreds of pages of emails and texts, we found state agencies arguing about whether or not Wilson qualifies for the license.

Texas requires funeral directors to attend mortuary college and pass national and state exams to get a license.

But Wilson went before the state, arguing that Texas Occupation Code, Chapter 55, allows his military service to satisfy the educational requirements for the license.

The code says, "A state agency that issues a license shall, with respect to an applicant who is a military service member or military veteran, credit verified military service, training or education toward the licensing requirements, other than an examination requirement, for a license issued by the state agency."

Wilson thought he was eligible for a license as long as he passed the national exam. He even had letters of recommendation from the Air Force calling him an "exceptional embalmer" and the Army saying he'll bring "prestige" and "integrity" to the industry.

Wilson said after some convincing, Texas Funeral Service Commission Executive Director James White, who is also a veteran, agreed to grant him the license if he passed the national board exam.

Wilson said he passed on the first try, and when he got that license, he framed it and put it in a completely renovated building in Baytown that he and his business partner turned into a funeral business.

"I had a great career, but it was just time to go home," Wilson said. "I knew that I wanted to be in the funeral industry, and I knew that I would've made a huge impact on the Baytown community and Houston community, and so I just decided to come home. It was time."

But about three months after getting the license, Wilson said he got a gut-wrenching call from White asking him to relinquish his license. He said he thought it was a prank.

"I was heartbroken because to finally get it and then to have it taken away or request that I relinquish it without no justifiable cause, no due process, just because supposedly someone misinterpreted the law, it was heartbreaking. I feel like the years that I spent fighting for this were in vain," Wilson said.

13 Investigates asked White about the decision to have Wilson relinquish his license. White would not grant us an interview but sent us a statement, saying, "Commission decisions regarding licensure are made with careful attention to statutes and agency rules."

Still, our investigative team wanted to know the internal communications surrounding the decision to remove Wilson's license, so we sent open records requests for Texas Funeral Service Commission documents and staff emails.

In an August letter to the chair of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, White said, "I am begging, pleading and recommending that you direct me to restore the licensure status of Desaray Wilson unless there is an appropriate challenge to his military education, training or service."

The Commission's own staff attorney wrote on Aug. 18, 2023, that "if the Commission refuses to issue the license, it is in violation of state law and opens itself up to litigation and other negative legal consequences."

Although the Commission didn't tell 13 Investigates why Wilson was asked to relinquish his license, internal documents we obtained show Attorney General Ken Paxton's Office decided the Texas law aimed at helping veterans doesn't apply in Wilson's case.

In an Aug. 16, 2023, email to White, Assistant Attorney General Helen Kelley gave her legal opinion to the Commission.

"When an agency has so few requirements of its licensees to begin with, like (the Texas Funeral Service Commission) does, it's hard to find requirements or prerequisites to waive because the ones that do exist have been deemed essential/required in statute."

Houston Attorney Barney Dill, also a veteran, said when he first read over the law, it seemed clear, but as he looked into it more, he realized it's a bit more nuanced.

"I could see why somebody in the Attorney General's Office who read over this will say, 'Oh, well, it doesn't say that he had the authority, so therefore we're going to yank it. We're going to ask him to surrender his license,'" Dill said.

Still, he said after reviewing the law more carefully, he believes the Texas Occupation Code does give the Commission the authority to waive the education requirement for Wilson.

"I think it's clear from the law that the intent of it was to help people like Mr. Wilson, and so I'm kind of shocked that they asked him to surrender it, and it just, it seems very strange," Dill said. "We have to protect occupations in the State of Texas and make sure people are competent, but I think the facts are on Mr. Wilson's side. He passed the national test. There's no reason to believe that he's incompetent in this. In fact, if anything, he's probably more competent and better trained than somebody who got a Bachelor's of Science in mortuary."

13 Investigates reached out to the Attorney General's Office for comment. We did not get a response.

We also put in a public records request for Attorney General staff emails about Wilson's case, but the agency cited attorney-client privilege and did not provide the requested information.

Wilson said he knows he could just take an 18-month program to receive an associate's degree in applied science or finish a nine-month online program for funeral directing in addition to a one-year apprenticeship. But he said he doesn't plan to go that route as a matter of principle. He wants to fight back because he doesn't want this to happen to anyone else.

"I could've gone. I didn't have any problems with the school. My school would've been paid for by my GI bill, but I just said something has to be done because there's some other veterans fighting with other agencies trying to get it done. I'll be the Guinea pig," Wilson said.

Without the license, Wilson said he couldn't legally speak to and help clients coming into his new funeral home. The nameplate and business cards with "Funeral Director" under his name can't be displayed either.

"I cannot concede right now. I've come too far," he said. "I don't want a formal apology. I don't want a long, drawn-out explanation. I just want my license returned, and that's it. Because you didn't give it to me, I earned it."

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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