It has been 10 months since St. Tammany Coroner Dr. Peter Galvan suddenly took the spotlight in the parish that he certainly never hoped to have.
The first story about Galvan and his questionable spending habits with taxpayer money as the parish coroner first surfaced in The Slidell Independent in December of 2012—the sister paper to Tammany West. That was followed by a second story in January, 2013, and then the barrage of media reports began from then until now, pretty much hammering this man as hard as anyone could be hit from a public standpoint.
Even though our small local papers don’t get the regional credit it deserves, I do know that our paper was the first one that reported the questions about Galvan’s use of taxpayer money. And to give credit where credit should go, none of this would have ever made the light of day without a man named Terry King spending countless hours to research Galvan’s public credit card records from the Coroner’s Office, and compiling them in a way media folks like myself could use to write a story.
I have been writing news in St. Tammany Parish for well over 30 years, and it didn’t take me long to develop a policy of being darn sure that I didn’t write a critical story about someone unless they really deserved it. I have told many a person that I consider these stories just as if I was writing about a family member, trying to consider if it is truly warranted and whether we should write something that indicts a person long before they ever go to trial—because that is what a news story will usually do.
Peter Galvan was certainly one of those people. I knew for months that Terry King had gotten his hands on public records from the Coroner’s Office, and I has asked him months before I wrote the story whether there was anything he believed to be a news story.
After going over the records, King said he did believe it was something that should be publicized and after seeing the same information, questioning why so much money had been spent on meals and dining out on the taxpayer dime, I agreed that it warranted a front page story.
So began the long saga that finally led to Galvan’s charges recently on various claims that he was improperly paid over $100,000 for vacation and sick pay he was not entitled to, a charge that he paid $50,000 to a Coroner’s Office employee for handling a personal contract with the Slidell Jail, charges that he used taxpayer money for personal items on his boat or plane, and the charge that he spent over $15,000 of public money for meals that were not deemed for the public good.
As the story unfolded early in 2013, other media sources finally jumped on the bandwagon to write about the information all provided by Terry King and his public records requests. But I will give credit to Lee Zurik of Fox 8 in New Orleans for delving deeper into the questions of vacation and sick pay Galvan was paid for, and he was the only reporter who broke that story months into the questions about Galvan’s actions.
The Slidell Independent also became the only paper that ever got a story about Galvan’s reported reasons for why he did some of the things he did. Throughout the past 10 months, he steadfastly refused to comment to any media, citing the ongoing litigation with Dr. Laura King, the wife of Terry King, who was fired by Galvan to start the entire mess.
Galvan reportedly told investigators that all the spending questions—which have nothing to do with the charges involving the Slidell jail contract—were related to his decision to become the project manager for the new Coroner’s Office building that was constructed in Lacombe on Hwy. 434.
While Galvan was never charged for slowly raising his own salary from $54,000 to nearly $200,000 from 2004 to 2012, he was highly criticized for doing that. Most people could not see why he should make that much money as the parish coroner, since it actually put him in a position of making a higher salary than the Louisiana governor! That issue alone, although not criminal, certainly added to the heat on investigators to see what else he had been involved with.
Two weeks ago when the U.S. attorney announced the charges against Galvan, the long wait to see if there were, in fact, criminal charges to be filed against the coroner, was finally over. It was a relief to public officials here, tired of being in the middle of it all, and it was probably a relief to the watchdog group, Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, who boldly took on the monumental chore of starting a recall petition.
Needless to say, I have had dozens of people talk to me about the Galvan situation since the charges were announced, and to them all, I have admitted I have a level of compassion for the man. I had done at least two in-depth interviews with Galvan in the past few years—both on topics he was addressing to try and do something good for parish residents. One was a 24/7 hotline and call center that would address the lack of mental health services in the public. And in interviewing Galvan, there was no doubt he is a brilliant man who is well-intentioned. The problem, I believe, is that somewhere along the way of being parish coroner, he began to think he had a little more power than he did to do things that no one in any public office really should do.
I have seen that happen with many public officials. Even at lower levels, the power of some positions can lead to attitudes and decisions that are downright wrong. And while Peter Galvan has not been found guilty of anything yet, it seems very clear there is a lot of evidence which will make that point.
I, for one, will be glad to see the Peter Galvan situation fade into the rear view mirror, but just as I said at the start of this column, I still have a level of compassion for the man—any man—who suddenly faces the future Galvan will undoubtedly face.
And once our court system does its job, I think we will all be glad to move past this unfortunate chapter in St. Tammany history.
Kevin Chiri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org