St. Tammany Coroner’s Office shelling out to lawyers

When Kim Kelly, chief financial officer for the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office, was called to testify in recent weeks before a federal grand jury investigating the Coroner’s Office, she initially billed her employer for the cost of her personal lawyer, her attorney, Vincent Wynne, confirmed Monday.

Wynne said he is representing Kelly, who he said is not the target of the grand jury probe. She appeared before the grand jury simply to testify about documents that the grand jury was reviewing, he said.

But even though Wynne said that it would not be inappropriate for the public agency to pay an employee’s lawyer’s fees under those circumstances, Kelly decided to reimburse the Coroner’s Office for all his fees, he said. A decision on whether the Coroner’s Office — and thus the taxpayers — will ultimately foot the bills will be made when it’s all over, Wynne said.

It’s far from being all over now, with Coroner Peter Galvan’s office in the cross-hairs of multiple investigations into spending practices. The legal bills are rapidly mounting.

The Coroner’s Office check that was paid to Wynne, Goux and Lobello, LLC on March 21 was for about $6,618, according to a review of checks in the monthly bank statement from First NBC for the Coroner’s Office checking account. That’s a fraction of the $60,432 that the agency spent on lawyers in March alone.

Galvan’s office is being investigated by the state legislative auditor as well as by a grand jury. In fact, the office lost a challenge to the auditor in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge on Monday morning. The coroner was sued by the auditor in April to compel him to turn over email communication among staff members. Galvan responded by filing a suit of his own in 22nd Judicial District Court — which was bumped to the 19th District. The Coroner’s Office is being represented in that litigation by the New Orleans law firm Schonekas Evans McGoey. Their bills have not yet shown up in the First NBC checking account for the coroner.

Kyle Schonekas of that firm said he is handling subpoena returns to the legislative auditor and “others” for Galvan’s office. Asked if that included grand jury subpoenas, Schonekas declined to comment.

Schonekas and Wynne were the only lawyers who returned calls Monday to answer questions about what kind of work they are doing for Galvan’s office.

While the nature of some of the legal work Galvan has commissioned is still murky, it is clear that the Coroner’s Office is spending more on lawyers of late, as the spotlight on Galvan intensifies. In 2011, the Coroner’s Office paid a total of $109,494 to outside law firms. In January through November of 2012, the amount spent on lawyers dropped dramatically — to $65,372.

Bank records for December and January were not immediately available. But in February and March alone, the amount spent on lawyers skyrocketed to $99,895.

That total does not include any fees paid to Schonekas Evans McGoey.

The vast majority of the $65,375 paid to lawyers in 2012 went to the Bezou Law Firm, based in Covington. But the wealth has been spread around this year, with Branton & Associates LLC, Shields Mott Lund, Wynne Goux and Lobello LLC and Bezou Law Firm — as well as Schonekas Evans McGoey — all getting a piece of the action.

Public agencies generally have broad latitude to hire lawyers to represent them in civil disputes. But Carl Ernst of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which is seeking Galvan’s recall, said the taxpayer is getting hit twice because of Galvan’s decision to fight the legislative auditor.

“For Galvan to go to court, it costs the taxpayers, and to defend against him in court costs the taxpayers,” Ernst said.

Ernst pointed out that Melanie Comeaux, who resigned earlier this month as the office’s executive director, was in-house counsel for the Coroner’s Office, “so we’re paying three times,” he said.

Schonekas said Galvan felt it necessary to fight the subpoena from the legislative auditor because a number of the communications the auditor sought were protected by attorney-client privilege. Indeed, 2,000 of the 80,000 emails Galvan must be turned over will first be reviewed by a judge to determine whether they’re privileged.

Neither Kelly nor Galvan returned calls for comment Monday.