Officials expect Galvan to resign, plead guilty in theft conspiracy case
A long-running public drama came to an abrupt end Friday when St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan — the subject of state and federal probes, a drumbeat of negative news stories and mounting calls for his resignation — was charged with misusing his office in an apparent plea deal with federal authorities. By next Friday, Galvan is expected to resign the post he’s held for nearly 14 years.
Galvan, 54, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit theft, a charge made in a bill of information rather than a grand-jury indictment. That’s almost always a sign that the target has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with authorities.
If convicted, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, Galvan faces a maximum of five years in jail, a $250,000 fine and restitution. Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino said federal guidelines would likely call for a sentence of between three and five years, considering Galvan’s position as an elected official and the large amount of money involved.
St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister announced Galvan’s impending resignation shortly after news of the charge broke.
Galvan could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Kyle Schonekas, declined comment.
According to the bill of information, Galvan conspired with two unnamed employees of the office, “Individual A” and “Individual B,” to misuse the office’s money. Neither of the employees has been charged.
The first individual helped Galvan secure pay for unused annual and sick leave that he was not entitled to receive, in the amount of $111,376, the document says.
While the bill of information doesn’t identify “Individual A,” Kim Kelly, the chief financial officer for the coroner’s office, resigned abruptly at the end of May. Kelly testified before the federal grand jury before her resignation, according to her attorney, Vincent Wynne. He said at the time that she was not a target of the investigation.
“Individual B,” according to the bill of information, helped Galvan fulfill a contract that his private medical practice had with the Slidell jail by using an employee of the coroner’s office. That allowed Galvan to profit personally to the tune of $50,000, the document says. Though it does not say so in the documents, the medical services were provided by Mark Lombard, the coroner’s chief death investigator.
Logs from the jail show that Lombard performed much of the work of treating inmates at the jail and did so during the work week.
Lombard’s work at the jail prompted a complaint to the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners from Laura and Terry King, frequent critics and legal adversaries of the coroner. Their complaint questioned whether Lombard, who is a registered emergency medical technician, had the necessary qualifications to treat prisoners. Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith said in a prepared statement Friday that his agency had provided investigators with all the information they had requested.
“As this matter moves into the justice system — and out of the coroner’s office — I hope we can all move past the scandals and work together for good, honest government,” Smith said.
This summer, Smith said he had ended the contract — which dated to 2007 — in April because the jail was not getting the services it had been offered, with service falling off after investigations began. Lombard didn’t answer his phone all the time, Smith said. He also said he had thought the person providing the services would be a nurse practitioner, which Lombard is not.
Detective Daniel Seuzeneau, spokesman for the police department, said no one there knew at the time that Lombard was being paid by the coroner’s office for his work at the jail.
Lombard did not return a call for comment.
Michael DeFatta, the chief deputy coroner, will assume the coroner’s duties following Galvan’s resignation until an election to fill the unexpired term is held, parish officials said.
Along with assisting in the jail scheme, the bill of information also says that “Individual B” helped Galvan buy a marine generator for the coroner’s personal boat. Galvan is also accused of using coroner’s office funds to buy a global positioning system and a life raft and personal flotation devices for his boat. All told, those items cost $14,011.
Galvan also misused the office debit card to improperly purchase $15,606 worth of meals and other personal items, the document said.
The charges against Galvan come after months of scrutiny of spending by his office by a federal grand jury and also the state Legislative Auditor’s Office.
The FBI executed search warrants at the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office in May. Before then, Galvan had been ordered to provide documents in response to at least three grand jury subpoenas, according to multiple media reports. Those documents included one outlining the deal with the jail and another that sought a laundry list of items, including bank statements and credit card purchases.
Galvan, who first won office in a 1999 election, has been the target of an ongoing recall petition drive, which becomes moot with his resignation.
Rick Franzo of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which spearheaded the recall drive, said the group had a good chance of collecting enough signatures to recall Galvan, but is happy it didn’t prove necessary.
“I’m sad for St. Tammany Parish in a way but also happy for St. Tammany Parish because we are finally getting some justice and can move beyond this,” he said.
Brister said the parish has been cooperating with authorities for months to provide information they need.
“Today we are glad that justice will be served, and the situation brought on by Dr. Galvan will be corrected,” Brister said in a statement. “I have consistently said that government should work with efficiency and effectiveness, and there is no place for a public servant that goes down the road of abuse and squalor.”
During a news conference, Brister said she knows Galvan personally and is “heartbroken” for his family. “But I’ve said all along, the transparency of what we do day to day is something we owe to the public,” she said.
St. Tammany Parish Council members Jerry Binder, Reid Falconer and Gene Bellisario also spoke at the news conference, with Bellisario describing the scandal as one of the worst that’s ever occurred in St. Tammany.
The Parish Council had asked Galvan to resign in March and at the same meeting asked him to return money that he had been paid for vacation and sick time.
In August, the Parish Council passed a second resolution asking him to reduce his public salary. The coroner’s office was stripped of much of its financial independence by the state Legislature last session, including the ability to set salaries, but the coroner’s salary is constitutionally protected and cannot be diminished during a coroner’s term of office. Galvan’s salary was about $239,000 this year.
Galvan had challenged the constitutionality of the new law, one of several court battles he was waging that have resulted in legal fees topping $700,000. It’s not clear what will happen to those matters now.
The Kings, whose relentless criticism and lawsuits against the coroner began his demise, described the events as “a very long road for us, but one that we felt that we must travel.”
Laura King worked in the coroner’s office. Galvan fired her, and she sued in 2009, saying she was terminated for raising concerns about the office’s management.
Terry King thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
“They persevered and made the system work when it was so obviously broken on the local and state level.”
Reporter John Simerman contributed to this story.