St. Tammany Parish officials say embattled coroner is cooperating with shift in financial oversight

Despite the fact that Peter Galvan and St. Tammany Parish officials are still slugging it out in court over a new state law that gives the parish oversight of the coroner’s finances, the litigants are nonetheless taking steps to implement changes demanded by the law, according to Parish President Pat Brister.

Specifically, the parish is now depositing Coroner’s Office revenue into special accounts, according to a statement issued by Brister’s office Thursday. The Coroner’s Office is funded by a 3.5-mill property tax.

The parish finance department and Chief Financial Officer Beverly Gariepy are working with officials from the Coroner’s Office to determine the financial obligations for the office for the rest of the year to ensure that operating costs and debt service are met, parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson said.

The law also requires the parish to approve any contracts or purchase agreements entered into by the Coroner’s Office, puts ownership of moveable property back with the parish, and gives the parish control over Coroner’s Office salaries.

Act 181, which essentially strips the embattled coroner of his financial independence, was adopted by the state Legislature during the last session. It followed months of controversy over spending at Galvan’s office, including lavish salaries, restaurant charges and the coroner’s two take-home vehicles. A federal grand jury and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office are currently investigating those spending practices.

The measure, authored by state Rep. Tim Burns, was signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in June. The next day, the Coroner’s Office filed suit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge challenging the law on constitutional grounds.

The lawsuit claims that in authorizing the St. Tammany Parish Council to set the coroner’s salary, it is authorized “to alter, reduce or otherwise diminish’’ that salary during the coroner’s term of office. The constitution does not allow the salaries of some officials, including coroners, to be diminished during their term of office.

The lawsuit cites a cooperative endeavor agreement signed by the parish and the coroner in November 2007 as part of an earlier legislative change, authored by Sen. A.G. Crowe, that gave the coroner more control over his finances. That contract is still in effect, the lawsuit says, and the new law unconstitutionally impairs it. The suit further claims that the law creates an unconstitutional diversion of a dedicated tax.

The coroner did not seek an injunction or temporary restraining order to block enforcement of the law, however. And several weeks later, St. Tammany Parish filed suit in 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington asking for a declaratory judgement and an injunction to force the coroner to follow the new law.

As part of its filings, the parish submitted a seven-page list of items it wants from the Coroner’s Office, from its organizational chart and job descriptions to bank accounts, signature cards, credit card statements and check registers.

Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann LLC, one of the seven law firms doing legal work for the Coroner’s Office, filed an exception asking that the suit be dismissed. A hearing has been set for Aug. 7 in Judge William J. Knight’s courtroom.

In the meantime, Brister said, the parish is moving forward with what she called the “realignment of financial oversight” of the Coroner’s Office.

“Currently, they have worked with us to implement the change and are providing required information to make this transfer and comply with the new law.”

This story was altered on July 26, 2013.