Galvan pleads guilty to conspiracy

Former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan has played the leading role in a corruption drama that has riveted the public for more than a year, but the tactiturn central figure has been largely unseen and unheard.

That changed little Wednesday when the physician stood before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan and impassively pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit theft.

He made no statement before or after his arraignment, leaving the court hand-in-hand with his wife, Alison.

The plea was expected as Galvan, 54, had been charged Oct. 11 in a bill of information rather than an indictment, a signal that a plea agreement was at work. The single count with which he was charged carries a maximum five-year sentence and $250,000 fine. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 29.

The fact he had a plea agreement was confirmed in Morgan’s court.

The picture that emerged from the bill of information was that of an elected official who for years had used his public office for private gain: cashing in on sick and vacation leave to which he was not entitled, buying pricey equipment for his private plane and boat, and using a publicly paid employee to do work under a contract that profited his private medical practice.

The bill of information also highlighted two co-conspirators in the Coroner’s Office, identified only as “Individual A” and “Individual B.” The first person helped Galvan secure pay for $111,376 in annual and sick leave, the document said.

Kim Kelly, who resigned abruptly as chief financial officer at the end of May, testified before a federal grand jury shortly before her resignation. Her attorney, Vincent Wynn, confirmed around that time she had testified but said she was not a target.

The second co-conspirator is accused of helping Galvan fulfill the contract with the Slidell Jail. Mark Lombard, who resigned from the Coroner’s Office the same day as Galvan, did the work at the Slidell Jail under the contract, according to police.

Neither Kelly nor Lombard has been charged.

The plea agreement that Galvan signed contained the standard provision that he must cooperate in other investigations, but it is not clear whether that is happening.

U.S. Atttorney Kenneth Polite Jr. said in a statement that the investigation into the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office is ongoing.

“Today’s guilty plea ensures that Peter Galvan will be punished for abusing the public trust for personal gain,’’ Polite said.

Galvan, who tried to elude reporters at his first arraignment, pulled up in front of the federal courthouse Wednesday about 20 minutes before his 2 p.m. arraignment.

Seated at a table in the courtroom, he conferred quietly with attorneys without turning around to look at those behind him. He answered the judge’s questions about his guilty plea with the briefest of responses, “Yes, ma’am’’ and “Yes, your honor.’’

Judge Morgan’s initial questions — whether Galvan was under medical or mental health care and whether he had taken narcotics, prescription drugs or consumed alcohol in the past 24 hours — were answered in the affirmative, prompting a short discussion at the bench.

The judge then said she found him competent to enter into a plea.

The proceedings included the reading of the government’s factual basis, what prosecutors intended to prove in court had Galvan not entered a guilty please. That document tracked what was in the bill of information: that Galvan received $111,376 in a cash payout from 2008 to 2013 for vacation and annual leave to which he wasn’t entitled and that he profited by $50,000 from a deal between the Slidell Jail and his private medical practice that used a Coroner’s Office employee.

The factual basis also outlined Galvan’s use of office funds to buy personal items, including a marine generator and life boat for his personal boat. The total for that count was $16,406. He also spent $15,606 on his office debit card for meals and other charges, according to the factual basis.

“Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty?’’ the judge asked after the reading of the factual basis.

“I am,’’ Galvan said.

Morgan then outlined sentencing recommendations in the plea agreement, which added to his potential sentence because of the amount he is accused of stealing and the fact that he abused the public trust but gave him credit for accepting responsibility for his actions.

According to those guidelines, Galvan is facing a likely sentence of 18 to 24 months, according to Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino. The judge is not obligated to follow those recommendations, a point she made several times in court.

Most of the observers in the courtroom were reporters, but former Coroner’s Office employee Laura King and her husband, Terry, were also there. The couple’s relentless crusade against Galvan and his management of the office became his undoing.

Laura King said she has been surprised at the coroner’s unwillingess to speak publicly, saying that the story won’t be over for her until his sentencing.

“I did like it when he said, ‘Yes, I’m guilty,’ ’’ Terry King said.