St. Tammany coroner case heads back home

A Baton Rouge judge ruled Tuesday that the ongoing battle to control the St. Tammany Parish coroner’s finances should be decided in St. Tammany.

Coroner Peter Galvan in June filed a lawsuit at the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge against the state and St. Tammany Parish Council, saying a new law stripping him of financial control over his office is unconstitutional. But Judge Wilson Fields with the 19th Judicial District Court concluded his courtroom wasn’t the proper venue to decide that question, sending the case back to St. Tammany, where it is expected to be combined with another pending lawsuit.

The law passed during this year’s legislative session handed control of Coroner’s Office finances to the Parish Council, following revelations of Galvan’s lavish spending, which is currently under scrutiny by the FBI and Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.

The law does not allow the council to adjust Galvan’s approximately $200,000 annual salary — the highest in the metropolitan area despite the fact that he maintains an active medical practice — but does give the council control over the office’s employee salaries, contracts and purchase agreements. The council exercised that authority last week, rejecting Galvan’s request for a $115,000 salary for a chief executive officer, instead allotting $80,000 for the position.

Although Galvan maintained that the law was unconstitutional in the suit filed in Baton Rouge, he did not ask the judge to block the law going into effect while the case is litigated.

His attorneys argued in the suit that a 2007 agreement signed by then-St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis and Galvan should remain in effect. That agreement, and companion legislation, gave broad financial discretion to the St. Tammany coroner to spend the ample property tax dollars dedicated to the office.

After questions were raised about Galvan’s spending, which in recent years has included lots of money spent on expensive restaurant meals, vehicle detailing and hefty employee salaries, the Louisiana Legislature passed House Bill 561, authored by Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, which became Act 181 when Gov. Bobby Jindal signed it into law in June.

The day after Jindal signed the law, Galvan sued in district court in Baton Rouge, naming the Parish Council and the state of Louisiana as defendants.

In his ruling, Fields agreed with arguments made by attorneys from Attorney General James D. Buddy Caldwell’s office, who represented the state in the case. They argued that since Galvan was not seeking any corrective action from the state, it shouldn’t have been named a defendant. With the state removed, the case belongs in St. Tammany Parish, Fields ruled.

Galvan’s attorney, Phillip Wittman, said he expected the case to be moved quickly.

“I believe this case will be combined with the other,” Wittman said, in reference to the case before Judge William J. Knight in the district court in Covington.

That lawsuit, filed by the St. Tammany Parish government, asks Knight to uphold the constitutionality of the new law. As part of the lawsuit, the parish submitted a seven-page list of items it wants from the Coroner’s Office, including organizational charts, job descriptions, bank account signature cards, credit card statements and check registers.

Wittman said he planned to seek an expedited hearing when the case moves back to St. Tammany Parish.

Parish President Pat Brister said in a statement that she was gratified by Fields’ ruling.

“This is a vindication of our position and what we have said all along,” she said. “It is only natural that it be heard in St. Tammany.”

Caldwell issued a similar statement praising Fields’ decision. “We will be actively watching the case and will become active if or when needed,” spokeswoman Amanda Larkins said.