Four seek to fix Tammany Coroner’s Office

For more than a year, a dark cloud of lawsuits, investigations, negative media coverage and, eventually, indictments and guilty pleas has been hanging over the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office and especially former Coroner Peter Galvan. But with an election to fill the rest of Galvan’s term set for April 5, four candidates are vying to become the sun that chases that cloud away.

Each of the four is promising to shine light into the office and restore the integrity and respectability lost under Galvan, who in October pleaded guilty in federal court to a single count of conspiracy to steal public funds from the Coroner’s Office. Galvan was sentenced in February to two years in federal prison, in addition to fines and restitution.

“I am running to restore trust and accountability to the Coroner’s Office,” candidate Leanne Truehart told the Mandeville City Council on March 13 and then the Covington City Council on March 18. Truehart, a Mandeville-based psychiatrist, has perhaps the hardest case to make in this regard: Galvan brought her on as the office’s mental health director, and she was a deputy coroner when he resigned.

However, she said, the two barely spoke during Galvan’s last year in office — the result, she said, of a disagreement that Truehart feared would get her fired. Instead of firing her, though, Galvan had the office’s executive director, Melanie Comeaux, call Truehart in and forbid her to contact Galvan directly.

Truehart is hardly the only one of the candidates talking about the importance of increasing transparency at the office.

“My focus will be on providing strong leadership,” said Adrian Talbot, a Slidell urgent-care doctor. To help keep the office’s operations accountable to parish taxpayers, Talbot has proposed the creation of a six- to 12-member “oversight board” of parish residents who would meet quarterly and go over the office’s operations. The board would also provide a way for complaints about the office, both from the public and employees, to be investigated and the findings shared with the Parish Council, Talbot said.

Similar themes have been sounded by Charles Preston, a retired Slidell emergency room doctor, who said he would bring to the office the same “honesty and integrity” he’s had for the last 20 years as the owner of Doctors Urgent Care in Slidell.

Slidell gynecologist Robert Muller, like Talbot, has said he would form a citizen advisory board to examine the office’s expenditures. But unlike the other candidates, Muller has said he would not drop the legal challenge launched by Galvan against Act 181, a law passed by the Legislature last year in the wake of revelations about Galvan’s spending and the lavish salaries he awarded himself and his inner circle.

Act 181 gave the Parish Council the authority to set salaries at the Coroner’s Office. The other three candidates have said they would welcome the oversight of the council, but Muller argues the coroner is a constitutional office that is supposed to be independent.

“I don’t think it’s my prerogative to drop the suit,” Muller has said, arguing that it was filed by Galvan on behalf of the parish’s taxpayers. “As the sheriff pointed out to me, the Coroner’s Office is the only one that is going to be under the council. No other office is under their thumb,” he said.

Still, Muller has said, he would be fine with any outcome of the suit: “We will work whichever way it comes out.”

Otherwise, the candidates have tried to distinguish themselves by stressing their individual experience.

Preston said his past as both a doctor and a business owner has prepared him for the Coroner’s Office. Besides the office’s medical functions, a coroner must be able to oversee the administrative side of holding public office, he said.

“I have run a business for the last 10 years,” he said. Now retired, he said he would not be distracted by trying to maintain a private practice. “This won’t be my second job; it will be my only job,” he said.

Muller, on the other hand, has stressed his experience with law enforcement: He has worked with the New Orleans Police Department, the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office and the St. Tammany Office of Emergency Preparedness, all while maintaining a Slidell practice since 1985. He also was an assistant coroner in St. Tammany in 1988-89 and 1998-2000, before Galvan took office.

“I can do all five functions of the office,” he said. “I don’t think you see any experience in the other candidates like that I can bring to the table.”

In addition to his medical degree, Talbot holds a law degree from Loyola and served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, something he emphasized in a candidate forum in Lacombe last month. He also serves on the board of the Slidell Housing Authority, which he said has prepared him for taking over a public agency .

The IRS filed a $455,000 tax lien against Talbot in 2011, but he has provided a document that shows the lien was settled for less than half that amount in June of last year. Talbot said the lien resulted from “catastrophic losses” he suffered in Hurricane Katrina but that he is current on the payments required by the settlement.

Truehart pointed to her experience as the office’s mental health director, saying the Coroner’s Office does far more psychiatric commitments than it does death investigations. And even though her contract with the office — which was voided by the Parish Council and then tendered again after Galvan resigned — paid her $180,000 per year, Truehart said she is prepared to take a pay cut if she becomes coroner. The Parish Council has set the coroner’s salary at $84,000 a year, almost $100,000 less than her current contract pays her for 35 hours per week of work.

“My husband and I are preparing for that type of pay cut,” she said. “This is a sacrifice we are prepared and willing to make.”

All four candidates have emphasized that they are new to politics and to running for office. Nevertheless, Truehart has gotten out ahead of her opponents in one key area: fundraising. She said last week she had raised close to $100,000 for the race, far outstripping each of the other three candidates.

In interviews, the others tried to downplay the advantage that Truehart might gain from her financial edge.

“It’s not about the money,” Talbot said, adding that he thought he was leading in “passionate supporters.”

Preston said he expects to spend as much as $50,000 and that he was prepared to self-fund his campaign if necessary.

Muller said he was raising as much as he could, “but I am not going to spend a fortune on it,” he said.

Early voting in the race runs through Saturday, and the primary is April 5. A runoff, if necessary, would be May 3.