Gill: St. Tammany coroner’s career dead

You can’t say no respectable citizen would be caught dead with Dr. Peter Galvan, but only because he’s the coroner in St. Tammany Parish and you never know who’s next.

Galvan is so unpopular that it wouldn’t be a surprise if, one of these days, a new arrival sat up in the morgue and volunteered to sign the recall petition. Meanwhile, state and federal investigators are on his tail, he faces the prospect of a hefty civil judgment and his top aides are making a dash for the exit.

Parish president Pat Brister and the entire council, evidently fearing Galvan will give politicians a bad name, have called for his resignation. The Legislature has decreed he can no longer be trusted to handle his own budget.

Nothing seems to diminish Galvan’s high opinion of himself, and he is trying to brazen it out. But even he must have one regret; he should never have taken on Dr. Laura King. The public will be glad he was unwise enough to do so; otherwise the rotten heart of the coroner’s operation might have remained unexposed.

King and her husband, Terry, having wiped the floor with Galvan since he fired her in 2009, are not prepared to rest on their laurels. They have filed a federal suit seeking to nullify a state law under which Galvan had them charged with a crime carrying up to a year in jail.

Well, if lawsuits are to be filed every time the Legislature passes an unconstitutional law that advances no legitimate purpose, the courts are going to be clogged. But the Kings are clearly right.

The charges against them were dropped last year when it finally dawned on prosecutors that they were making asses of themselves by going along with what was clearly an attempt by Galvan to retaliate for the embarrassment the Kings had caused him.

They were charged with violating a law that decrees complaints to the state Ethics Board are confidential, and they were indeed guilty. Laura King had filed a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit, mentioning that she had filed an ethics complaint, and she and her husband confirmed it in several press interviews.

But the burden of that complaint was hardly secret, for it mirrored allegations made in court documents after Galvan fired Laura King as head of his forensic laboratory in 2009. She claimed that Galvan forced his attentions on female employees, rejected the best-qualified applicant for a job because he was black, wined and dined lavishly on the public dollar and fired her for refusing to misapply a government grant.

The Kings then went public with documentation that showed Galvan paid himself more than $200,000 a year, although he also maintained a private practice 20 miles away, and awarded favored aides with highly inflated salaries. Huge sums of public money went on boozy meals at fine-dining establishments, while taxpayers footed various bills that had no apparent connection with a coroner’s duties. When Galvan was pushing a multimillion-dollar tax increase a few years ago, he harped on a new DNA lab but said nothing about flying lessons and boat supplies in California.

Laura King also complained to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the state attorney general after she lost her job, so revealing her Ethics Board complaint was hardly going to damage Galvan’s reputation.

This was not the first time an Ethics Board complaint had been revealed, but it does appear to be the first time prosecution was seriously considered. That was in 2011, but by last year, Galvan’s stroke with the political establishment had evidently waned and the Kings were off the hook.

The law they now challenge is a flagrant denial of free speech conceived to spare politicians embarrassment, though many of them, like Galvan, are clearly incapable of feeling any. The rationale is that it is unfair to reveal allegations that may prove groundless, presumably because the public is too stupid to consider both sides. That is surely a risk worth taking when the alternative is trusting the Ethics Board never to bury a legitimate complaint.

The law is surely a goner, and the only question left to answer is how long Galvan will cling to office. We’re all dying to know.

James Gill can be contacted at jgill@theadvocate.com.