James Gill: Galvan now knows what happens to losers

Then-St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan responded with characteristic grace in 2011 when an opposing attorney congratulated him for winning a civil court case.

“You know what happens to losers?” Galvan said. “I f--- with you until you die.”

If federal Judge Susie Morgan was tempted to borrow that line when Galvan came up for sentencing Wednesday, she managed to resist. She just sent him up the river for a couple of years.

The biggest losers when Galvan was coroner were the taxpayers, although the case that gave rise to that witty riposte was unrelated to his thieving habits. It does, however, bespeak the self-regard that made him feel entitled to live very large on the public dollar.

Some of his pals and patients, in letters urging leniency, praised Galvan as a gifted and caring physician, and suggested his services were sorely needed on the north shore.

Galvan, however, closed down the private practice he maintained late last year while paying himself more than $200,000 as coroner. Now that he is a convicted felon, moreover, state law says the Board of Medical Examiners “may” suspend or revoke his license, so it is by no means certain that his imprisonment will make any difference to the quality of health care. Some fastidious patients might in any case prefer not to let a crook get his hands on them.

That won’t apply to the new friends Galvan is about to make, of course, and maybe his medical training will prove useful in the pen. If he saves some con’s life, he will finally get some favorable publicity.

Wednesday was a big day for corrupt politicians in the federal courthouse. While Galvan was preparing to learn his fate, a jury convicted former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on 20 of 21 counts. It is unlikely that Nagin will have the advantage of Galvan’s ministrations should he fall sick, however. Nagin is facing a sentence about 10 times longer than Galvan’s, and will probably be assigned to a tougher joint.

A few of his old patients told Morgan that they wanted Galvan to be their doctor still, while no less an authority than Steve Nelson, head of LSU’s Health Services Center, described him as “a skilled physician with sharp diagnostic and clinical skills.” But the bill of information depicted Galvan not as an incompetent doctor, but a shady character.

Prisons are full of criminals with talent, and that makes no never mind when it comes to sentencing. Indeed, the likes of Galvan might be regarded as more reprehensible than offenders who lack the qualifications to command a fat income legally.

Galvan admitted to supplementing his by drawing $111,000 in sick and vacation pay to which he was not entitled, and raiding the coroner’s office accounts to equip his boat and pay his restaurant bills.

Galvan’s “reputation among peers was excellent,” according to Edward O’Bryan, CEO of the Northshore Regional Medical Center, but, if that is so, those peers cannot have been too concerned about the health of Slidell jail inmates.

Galvan had a contract on the side as the jail doctor, but never bothered to show up. He instructed a Coroner’s Office investigator, a mere EMT, to abandon his official duties one day a week and visit the jail in his stead. That dodge cost taxpayers at least $50,000, the feds say.

But Galvan never gave a hoot about the taxpayers. After his prodigal ways were exposed in the media, and the Legislature last year gave control of the Coroner’s Office budget to the Parish Council, his days in office were obviously numbered. Galvan nevertheless hired fancy lawyers on the Coroner’s Office dollar to sue the state and the parish, claiming the move was unconstitutional.

Thus the taxpayers found themselves picking up the tab for the attorneys on both sides. They were out another $800,000 by the time the feds finally got round to filing criminal charges in October, and Galvan promptly pleaded guilty.

Through it all Galvan refused to appear before the Parish Council or to make any public comment. If you had a dollar for every time he was called arrogant, you’d have almost as much as he stole.

His manners were certainly improved as he turned all contrite at sentencing. He sure knows now what happens to losers.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.