Stephanie Grace: Coroner’s spending puts toe-tag on career

Funny how there always seems to be a credit card.

In Louisiana’s never-ending series of political scandals, one recurring storyline has the official in question charging everyday living expenses to somebody else.

Sometimes it’s the taxpayers. Sometimes it’s some lucky contractor who’s snagged a lucrative government deal, with the official’s help.

But always, the arrangement amounts to an illicit blank check. And always, it offers a glimpse into the official in question’s outsized sense of entitlement.

The federal bill of information handed down Friday against soon-to-be-former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan has entitlement written all over it.

Galvan stands accused of using his office debit card to charge more than $15,000 in meals and other personal items, including dinner and drinks worth hundreds of dollars at some of the area’s best restaurants, previously reported records show.

He’s also accused of having his office pay for pricey personal supplies: more than $9,000 for a marine generator, nearly $5,000 for a life raft and flotation devices, and about $2,400 for a GPS.

He’s alleged to have cashed out more than $111,000 in unused sick and vacation time, when he wasn’t eligible for any of it.

And he’s accused of sending a Coroner’s Office employee to fulfill his personal contract to provide medical services at the Slidell jail, at a cost to taxpayers of $50,000.

The employee, who is not named in the legal filing, was chief death investigator Mark Lombard.

Bad as all that is, it’s just a sliver of the full story.

Unlike indictments, bills of information are generally issued against someone who has already agreed to plead guilty and cooperate, so they usually reflect a substantially scaled-down version of the potential charges.

Had Galvan continued to fight rather than cut a deal, as he apparently has done, jurors would have heard a narrative that’s even more infuriating.

They would have heard about a man who, armed with a narrowly approved dedicated 4-mill tax, saw fit to raise his own salary from $54,000 a decade ago to about $200,000, even as he continued to do outside work.

They would have learned Galvan not only cashed out unused vacation time to which he wasn’t entitled, but he apparently took time off anyway, and used it to travel to Mexico, Spain and Greece.

These international adventures were breezily chronicled on Facebook by Galvan’s wife, according to WVUE’s Lee Zurik.

They would have seen evidence that Galvan’s former $133,000-per-year chief financial officer, Kim Kelly, also charged numerous items to the office, including groceries.

They would have learned of Galvan’s single-minded effort to keep his job and his powers, even once word of his abuses prompted an outcry.

Galvan tried to hold on after the Legislature passed a law giving control of the office’s finances to the parish; after the Parish Council, with the support of Parish President Pat Brister, voted to seek his resignation, and then to ask him to reduce his own salary; and after voters launched a recall drive.

And they would have heard that Galvan’s extraordinary effort to fight these attempts to rein in his excesses led to another excess: more than $700,000 in lawyer fees for, among other things, his challenge to the state law stripping him of control over the office’s purse, his effort to keep official emails out of the hands of the state legislative auditor and to deal with an onslaught of public record requests — and to defend against a wrongful termination suit by former employee Laura King, who, with her husband Terry, blew the whistle on some of Galvan’s bad behavior.

Given how hard Galvan fought until last week, it was a little jarring to see him throw in the towel.

Assuming he pleads guilty and helps the feds nab his co-conspirators, he’ll face a maximum of five years in prison, which is surely far less than he’d have risked by going to trial.

We may never know what finally flipped the switch in his head, how Galvan traveled from defiant denial to acceptance.

And we’ll probably never find out the answer to an even more intriguing question: What set him down this slippery slope in the first place?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.