Embattled St. Tammany coroner racking up legal costs; taxpayers footing the bill

St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan is embroiled in a raft of legal battles, from lawsuits that have been filed against him to litigation he’s initiated, including his challenge to a new state law that strips away his control over the office’s finances.

But such wrangling comes at a price — one that’s borne by St. Tammany Parish taxpayers. Legal bills for the Coroner’s Office for the past six months show a tally of $258,922 paid to half-a-dozen private law firms over the past six months.

The most recent firms to be hired to fight efforts aimed at the embattled coroner are Shonekas, Evans, McGoey & McEachin and Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, records show.

Shonekas, Evans McGoey was engaged to fight a demand for Coroner’s Office email correspondence by the state legislative auditor, which is investigating its finances.

Judge William Morvant ordered Galvan’s office to turn over 78,000 emails to the legislative auditor at the end of May. But the matter is not yet resolved since 2,000 emails are still under review, and either side could appeal the judge’s decision, drawing out the time frame and the costs.

Monthly statements from the Coroner’s Office account at First NBC show that firm has been paid just over $22,000 in April and May.

Stone Pigman, on the other hand, was hired to represent the coroner in his challenge to the constitutionality of a law that requires Galvan to cede control of revenue generated by a Coroner’s Office millage to the St. Tammany Parish government. The firm was paid $5,000 on May 31. That suit was filed last month.

Besides those new legal fronts, Galvan has also paid a substantial amount of money for other representation.

The largest share of legal fees paid out over the past six months — $171,153 — went to the Bezou Law Firm in Covington, which has represented the Coroner’s Office in the wrongful termination lawsuit brought against it by former employee Laura King. Jacques Bezou did not return a call inquiring about the scope of his work for the coroner.

King and her husband, Terry, are involved in a number of suits targeting Galvan’s office and also have filed several complaints, most recently with the State Board of Medical Examiners.

Branton & Associates, which handles public records requests for the Coroner’s Office, received the next highest amount over the six-month period, at $47,340.

Charles Branton did not answer an inquiry about what other work, if any, his firm does for Galvan’s office.

Shields Mott Lund, which appears three times in the bank statements from December through May, was paid $6,834. The firm did not return a call to inquire about the nature of its work for the coroner.

The smallest amount, $6,618, was a single payment in March to the firm Wynne, Goux and Lobello, which represents Kim Kelly, who at that time was the chief financial officer for the Coroner’s Office and was appearing before a grand jury. Vincent Wynne, who said his client is not a target of the probe, said in May that the money was reimbursed.

But even when that bill is subtracted, the total for the last six months exceeds a quarter of a million, and during that period of time, Melanie Comeaux, a lawyer who served as in-house counsel to the coroner as well as chief administrative officer, was still working there. Her annual salary for 2013 was set at $124,848, according to reports in The Times-Picayune. She left the Coroner’s Office at the end of May.

The Coroner’s Office also spent just over $1,000 in October to provide mediation training for Comeaux, according to a bank statement, which showed a check made out to Comeaux with the notation Mediation Institute on the memo section. Neither Galvan nor Mark Lombard answered calls for this story, so the justification for that payment is unclear.

Legal issues are also triggering some less obvious costs. The Coroner’s Office hired the media relations firm Buisson Creative Strategies late last year and has paid that company a total of $5,000 since October.

Greg Buisson said that his firm was hired to help the Coroner’s Office publicize the significant public benefits of the new office and crime lab and to help get the word out about suicide prevention initiatives.

He stressed that his firm is not involved in helping Galvan with his issues.

But his firm has had some dealings with legal issues. It advised Comeaux before she testified before the state Legislature concerning the bill to remove the coroner’s financial authority, he said. The firm also handled media inquiries concerning the wrongful termination suit filed by King, he said.

St. Tammany Parish, which is named as a defendant in the lawsuit challenging the change in control over the office, also is incurring legal costs.

The parish recently hired Daigle, Fisse & Kessenich after a recusal by St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed, whose office normally represents parish government, spokeswoman Amy Bouton said.

She said that the parish can’t provide a dollar amount but that the rates charged by the firm are in line with state attorney general’s guidelines for legal fees paid by government bodies.

Carl Ernst of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which is leading a recall petition against Galvan, said he expects the legal bills to continue to mount, since the suit challenging the law to strip the coroner of financial authority has just been filed. He noted that taxpayers are having to pay legal bills for both sides.

“There’s more to come,’’ he said. If the coroner ends up spending $150,000 fighting the law and the parish spends $100,000 — what Ernst described as a conservative estimate — that would mean another quarter of a million in public dollars spent on private lawyers.

“The whole thing is insane,’’ he said.

This story was altered on July 11, 2013