Feds raid Galvan’s office; investigation into St. Tammany coroner reaching fever pitch

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  Federal agents served a search warrant in May at the new St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office in Lacombe, amid a spiraling federal probe into Coroner Peter Galvan's spending practices. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Federal agents served a search warrant in May at the new St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office in Lacombe, amid a spiraling federal probe into Coroner Peter Galvan's spending practices.

At issue: Coroner’s use of public funds

In a sign that the investigation into St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan is heating up, federal authorities on Thursday executed a search warrant on his office as part of a grand jury investigation into the coroner’s questionable spending practices, according to sources with knowledge of the probe.

Galvan was previously ordered to provide documents in response to at least three grand jury subpoenas, according to multiple media reports. Generally, but not always, the use of a search warrant rather than a subpoena is a signal that charges are in the offing.

Authorities need a federal judge to sign off on a search warrant, and to get that signature, they must provide the judge with an affidavit asserting there is probable cause that a crime has been committed and that evidence of that crime is likely present in the location to be searched.

It was not immediately clear what authorities were after in Thursday’s raid — or what they took with them — but the investigation generally revolves around whether Galvan diverted public funds for his personal use.

WVUE-TV reported earlier this month that Galvan’s office has already received at least three subpoenas related to the grand jury probe. One requested information about the 2006 purchase of 40 acres of land along La. 434 in Lacombe, where the coroner’s new $11 million, state-of-the-art facility is located. The land was purchased from Weyerhaeuser Co., a multinational timber company, for $1.4 million.

On the same day as that purchase, a private corporation owned by Galvan bought a nearby parcel from Weyerhaeuser that is twice as large. The per-acre price in that purchase was far lower than for the property bought by the Coroner’s Office, although the property bought by Galvan personally has less highway access, lacks utility service and is considered a wetland.

Observers, including members of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, have raised questions about whether Galvan got a sweetheart deal on the land he personally purchased.

The feds have also subpoenaed records from the city of Slidell, according to the station. Those records involve a contract that Galvan’s private medical practice had with the city to care for sick inmates at Slidell’s jail. That contract paid him between $47,500 and $50,000 annually.

Capt. Kevin Swann, Slidell’s assistant chief of police, said the Slidell Police Department ended its relationship with Galvan’s office by mutual agreement. The department is using Slidell Memorial Hospital for its inmate care for now, he said, and will be contracting out that work in the future.

Most of the work associated with that contract has been performed by Mark Lombard, the chief investigator for the Coroner’s Office, whose salary is paid by taxpayers — raising further questions about whether Galvan is profiting privately at public expense.

Another federal subpoena sought a laundry list of items, including bank statements and records of credit card purchases by the office. It also requested records specific to several purchases that appeared to be personal in nature, including the purchase of tractors, trailers and aviation training.

The search warrant served Thursday was related to some of those items, according to a source with knowledge of the probe.

Galvan is also being investigated by the state legislative auditor, which recently subpoenaed 80,000 e-mails from his office. Galvan initially refused to turn them over, saying some of them were subject to attorney-client privilege.

The coroner on Monday agreed to turn over the e-mails, 2,000 of which will first be reviewed by a Baton Rouge judge to determine whether they are indeed privileged. A package of e-mails was provided to the legislative auditor at around 10 a.m. Friday, according to Allen Brown, assistant legislative auditor. Brown said he had not had time to determine whether the package was complete.

Galvan is also the subject of a recall petition filed by the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which has been mobilizing to collect enough signatures to oust him.

Staff writer Sara Pagones
contributed to this story.