By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – For over six months, St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Peter Galvan has been the target of intense scrutiny for questionable spending in his department during the 2008-2009 year, followed by hefty salary increases through last year that hiked his pay to nearly $200,000 annually.
Galvan has steadfastly refused to answer any questions about those issues, citing a civil lawsuit against him that stemmed from an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint that was not acted on by that federal agency.
The lack of answers has brought a barrage of criticism Galvan’s way, topped by calls for his resignation by the St. Tammany Parish Council and Parish President Pat Brister. A recall effort is currently underway, and investigations into his department are ongoing by the Louisiana attorney general, legislative auditor and the FBI.
Today, sources to Tammany West have detailed the reasons Galvan has given investigators for virtually every issue he has been criticized for, making it clear he has an explanation for all the questions—even if the coroner still feels he cannot speak publicly about it.
According to Galvan, all of the spending issues and salary increases are linked to the new $7.4 million Coroner’s Office built in Lacombe from July, 2010 to its opening in August of 2012—and the public money he spent was because he assumed the role of project manager for the massive and detailed building that includes a state-of-the-art DNA lab.
The first story questioning Galvan’s department spending was reported in Dec., 2012, raising issues with excessive credit card use in his department that started in 2007, much of it tied to dining expenses at many of the best regional restaurants, including alcohol purchases at some of them.
Galvan was later criticized for raising his own salary to nearly $200,000 a year with steady increases since 2004, even though a state law passed in 2007 gave him authority to raise his salary with virtually no oversight.
And a 4-mill property tax approved by the voters in 2004 has been speculated to be more money than is needed to operate the new Coroner’s Office in Lacombe, where St. Tammany is now home to an internationally accredited DNA lab, something Galvan promised voters in seeking the millage approval in 2004.
Galvan explained to investigators that virtually all of the questions about spending in his department are related to work he took on as the project manager during the preparation years before construction began on the new St. Tammany Coroner’s Office on Hwy. 434 in Lacombe.
After Galvan received approval from voters in 2004 to increase the Coroner’s Office millage, planning and design work began on the new complex in Lacombe, which promoted the DNA lab as a great crime-fighting tool for St. Tammany.
Only a month ago in The Slidell Independent, 22nd Judicial Assistant District Attorney Ronnie Gracianette confirmed the value of the lab.
“Before we had the DNA lab here, it might take up to a year or more to get DNA results in a case from the State Police lab,” Gracianette said. “Having the lab here, we have results in six to eight weeks at the most, and it’s been an incredible benefit to use in prosecuting cases.”
Construction of a facility that large and complex includes architects and a contractor to oversee the job, and frequently includes a project manager to add oversight. Galvan said he initially wanted to be the contractor on the project, something he said could save hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, in a Nov., 2008 opinion from La. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, Galvan was told he could not legally take that position. Instead, he elected to become the project manager to remain involved in every step of the detailed facility.
Starting late in 2008 and into 2009 as project manager, Galvan was involved in dozens of meetings with architects, construction officials, DNA lab experts, contractors and many other key people playing a part in the design, and later the construction, of the facility. It was in those meetings that he did, in fact, spend far more money than normal for his department for meals that were a part of the planning and implementation of the project.
The first critical story about Galvan surfaced in Dec., 2012, when it was reported his department spent over $28,000 in 2008-2009 year for dining expenses, many of them at top-rated area restaurants. He told investigators most of that spending was associated with the necessary meetings with key figures having a hand in the new Coroner’s Office that was about to begin construction.
That scenario was supported by the fact dining expenses for his office dropped substantially to $18,807 for the next three years, from 2010 to 2012, when Galvan said the majority of those meetings had been concluded with the building nearing completion.
The coroner was also criticized for raising his salary incrementally since 2004—the year the millage was approved—all the way until this past year when his pay reached $199,555 annually. However, it was the Parish Council who actually had the power to approve Galvan’s requests for salary hikes all the way until 2007.
Galvan was making $54,000 a year in 2004 when the millage passed, but his annual budget through 2007 had to be submitted to the Parish Council, and they approved raises to $75,000 in 2005, $131,000 in 2006, and $151,187 in 2007.
A 2007 law was passed in the Louisiana Legislature that gave Galvan complete power over his own budget, and from that point on, he increased his salary to its current level of $199,555. Galvan told investigators the reasons he took the pay increases starting in 2007 were again tied to his job as project manager, which he continued to handle all the way until the new building opened to the public less than one year ago. He said he planned to reduce his salary after one year, when the project manager work would be finished.
Galvan has been criticized for the 4-mill property tax, which is bringing in $4.5 million annually to the department, a much higher revenue total than the $600,000 a year his office had previously received.
However, Galvan said he had to seek the higher millage since it was difficult to get a good idea exactly how much it would cost to operate such a facility with top technological equipment and high-paid scientists.
Records show Galvan did make visits around the country to several other DNA labs already in operation, again during the preparation time before construction, as he talked to other officials about the cost to run such a technologically-savvy facility. But he said he was still unable to get a clear picture of true expenses for the St. Tammany center. His plan, he claimed, was to wait until one year after the new office opened to get the true cost to operate the facility, then reduce the millage.
The new DNA lab for the Coroner’s Office opened last year, but has yet to make it to one year in operation.
Not only did Galvan begin to take heat in the public following stories being released by newspapers and later by New Orleans TV coverage, but parish officials began to speak publicly about the situation, leading to a vote several months ago by the St. Tammany Parish Council, asking Galvan to resign.
Additionally, Parish President Pat Brister called for Galvan’s resignation, even though the state legislative auditor, attorney general and FBI are currently in the midst of their investigations.
Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik was the only councilman to vote against the call for resignation, citing the investigations are not complete and Galvan deserved to be considered innocent until facts showed he had done something ethically or criminally wrong.
However, Brister and the council both said that even if he is found innocent of misusing public money, they believe the negative publicity for months has affected his ability to lead his office in an effective and efficient manner—thereby leading to the vote asking for his resignation by the council, and Brister’s public statement asking him to step down.
The problems for Galvan began to surface late last year after he fired toxicologist Dr. Laura King in 2009, leading to her EEOC complaint. The EEOC declined to go forward with the charge against the coroner, but did issue its mandatory “right-to-sue” letter. As part of that suit, King and her husband, Terry King, sought a laundry list of public records about Galvan’s operation. Much of that information was then released to the press, beginning the string of media reports about Galvan’s spending.
William Sizeler, architect for the Coroner’s Office, issued a statement noting Galvan saved substantial money constructing the building by continually pressing his firm to reduce the scope of the project. He said the building was initially budgeted at $9 million for 27,000 square feet, but due to Galvan’s insistence to tighten up the space, it was reduced to 23,200 square feet at a final cost of $7.4 million.
Sources report that Galvan has been trying to get approval from his attorneys to release his side of the story involving the allegations, but has not been able to get them to agree to the statements he wanted to go public with—even in written form—due to the ongoing investigations by state and federal agencies.
Galvan remains locked in the civil suit with the Kings, but is also facing a recall petition from the watchdog group, Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany.