By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
NEW ORLEANS – A week after former St. Tammany Coroner Dr. Peter Galvan was sentenced to 24 months in prison for using public money for his personal gain, a key figure at the beginning of the entire ordeal said the blame for Galvan’s lavish spending habits has to also spread to the St. Tammany Parish Council.
But former Parish Council President Jerry Binder said the “blame game” about the problems in the Coroner’s Office need to stop, and the blame needs to be put squarely where it belongs—on Galvan.
Terry King used his accounting and auditing experience to request public records from the Coroner’s Office after his wife, Dr. Laura King, was fired by Galvan in 2009. Laura King filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after losing her job as a toxicologist, a firing she deemed unfair since she had refused to use grant funds for improper purchases in the department.
As Terry King received more-and-more of the Coroner’s Office credit card receipts late in 2013, it started the ball rolling to reveal questionable spending in the department by Galvan, not to mention other records showing Galvan had raised his own salary from $54,000 in 2004 to nearly $200,000 by 2013. That information was forwarded to the media and began a year-long barrage of stories that played a key part in the investigation by state agencies, leading to his indictment, guilty plea and sentencing last week in front of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan.
Galvan was also ordered to pay $193,388 in restitution to the Coroner’s Office and that fine may rise even more as the investigation continues. Galvan is expected to report to the Bureau of Prisons on April 11.
Looking back at the past year of news stories, all met with silence by Galvan, who refused to publicity comment on the allegations from the beginning, King said that much of what happened might never have gotten to the level of criminal charges, had the Parish Council and the auditing firm that turned in the annual report made an issue of the problems.
“The travesty of all this is that it shouldn’t have ever gotten to the point of what he was doing with the money,” King said.”It wasn’t all Galvan’s fault. It was lack of oversite from the Parish Council to hold him accountable. And the Parish Council relied on an auditing firm, but all mechanics of oversight into his department failed.”
But Binder said the Coroner’s Office was never under the authority or oversight of the Parish Council until last year when La. Rep. Tim Burns authored a state bill, finally giving the Parish Council financial control.
Binder said the real blame for what happened needs to be on Galvan, who had sworn to uphold the laws of the office. In the end, Binder said, Galvan created his own problems and deserves the blame for what happened.
“The findings of the Louisiana State Legislative Auditor, the F.B.I, and the U. S. Attorney’s office squarely pointed the finger of blame at the Coroner, Dr. Peter Galvan. When Dr. Galvan appeared in federal court and pleaded guilty, he acknowledged acceptance of that blame, he admitted several criminal violations of the law, was forced to resign as coroner, and by his guilty plea so acknowledged that he had indeed violated the people’s trust and his own oath of office,” Binder said.
King said he is still pleased to see that jail time was the result of Galvan’s actions, but “when we first went to public agencies with the information we uncovered, they still refused to believe it. Our government is more culpable than Galvan.”
One source has reported that Galvan is expected to serve a minimum of 20 months, even with so-called “good time,” since federal jail time requires at least 85 percent of the time to be served.
When Galvan appeared in federal court last week for sentencing, he apologized for betraying the public trust, as well as bringing embarrassment and shame to his family.
“I apologize to the people of St. Tammany Parish who elected me,” Galvan said in court. “I also betrayed the public trust. I have ruined my career and reputation.”
He specifically apologized to his wife, Allison, and his daughter and said he would make full restitution to the people of St. Tammany.
From the time the first news reports were published in The Slidell Independent in Dec., 2013, detailing lavish use of credit cards at many local restaurants, Galvan refused to comment on any stories. That lack of candor on the issues led to the Parish Council and Parish President Pat Brister both asking him to resign. Galvan refused to step down and still did not talk to any reporters, never commenting publicly on any of the matter until his sentencing in court.
Galvan’s attorney, Billy Gibbens, told the judge that Galvan wanted to plead guilty and take responsibility for his action from the time Gibbens began working as his attorney, noting his client was not “the pariah he was made out to be.”
Morgan said she received more letters of support for Galvan than those asking for the maximum sentence. But she also received many from the public who said they had lost their faith in government from the actions seen by Galvan.
Brister issued a statement after the sentencing, noting “The guilty plea, and now the sentencing of Dr. Peter Galvan is another step towards normalcy for St. Tammany Parish. My personal disappointment in what has happened during the last year of this ordeal can’t be measured in the number of years in a prison sentence….Finally, after many months, we can now move on from this betrayal of the public trust.”
A special election to fulfill Galvan’s remaining year of time as coroner will be held April 5, and for the first time ever, there has been a great amount of interest in the job.
Qualifying ended Friday for that position and four doctors have qualified for the position, each commenting on Galvan’s sentencing and an end to the year-long ordeal.
“The sentencing marks the end of a very sad chapter in St. Tammany Parish’s history,” coroner’s candidate Dr. Adrian Talbot said. “I am praying for our Parish. And I hope others can find it in their heart to forgive Dr. Galvan and keep hi and his family in their prayers as well.”
“Some believe Dr. Galvan’s sentence was too harsh, while others believe it was too stern,” coroner candidate Dr. Charles Preston said. “Whether any of us agree with Dr. Galvan’s sentence or not, it is a sign that we are moving forward. Dr. Galvan may have done some good things early in his tenure as coroner, but all of that will be overshadowed by the crimes to which he pleaded guilty. Now, however, is not the time to dwell in the past but to look forward.”
Dr. Robert Muller, also running for coroner, simply said “the past is what it is. Let’s now proceed forward with HONESTY and TRANSPARENCY in electing the new coroner.”
“It’s appropriate that Peter Galvan was sentenced on the first day of qualifying. Justice has prevailed and the citizens have been served,” Dr. Leanne Truehart, the fourth coroner candidate, said. “This verdict is a critical step in the process of reestablishing trust and confidence in the Coroner’s Office. The new chapter begins and I plan on writing this chapter with a steady hand, professionalism and respect for our constituents.”