St. Tammany wants Galvan to reimburse taxpayers

Former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan owes the U.S. government 24 months of his freedom . But how much he owes the taxpayers of the parish from which he stole money remains an open question.

That question will be addressed at a hearing April 9 before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who last month sentenced Galvan to two years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to steal public funds while he was coroner.

While delivering Galvan’s sentence, Morgan said the restitution would be at least $193,000, but she allowed more time so that attorneys for both sides could examine exactly how much Galvan should be liable for paying.

On Tuesday, an attorney for the St. Tammany Parish Council weighed in, asking Morgan to require Galvan to repay at least $207,824.07, equal to the amount paid by the Coroner’s Office to two law firms that defended Galvan in 2013. In a six-page memo to Morgan, Terry Hand said the firms were hired to defend Galvan, not the Coroner’s Office, and therefore money paid to them was not a legitimate use of the public’s money.

The $207,824 apparently would be in addition to the $193,000 figure mentioned by the judge.

In his memo, Hand pointed out that the legal expenses for the Coroner’s Office far exceeded what the parish is asking for, estimating the total bill at more than $1.2 million.

“However, one cannot indict or charge the Coroner’s Office, but only the coroner, as was done in this case,” Hand wrote. “The defendant was guilty from the time he committed the criminal acts, and he certainly knew he was guilty when the legislative auditor and the federal (sic) and state began their investigations.”

Attached to Hand’s memo are 85 pages of supporting documents, including billing records from two law firms: Schonekas, Evans, McGoey and McEachin and the firm of Stephen D. London. The former firm was paid $116,944.07, according to Hand’s memo, and London billed $90,880.

Invoices submitted by the Schonekas firm for legal services between Feb. 18 and May 31, 2013, indicate that the services were provided for “grand jury investigations.” The firm charged Galvan’s office a $10,000 retainer, plus $475 an hour for lead attorney Kyle Schonekas.

Schonekas, who accompanied Galvan at his guilty plea and at his sentencing, promised Wednesday to fight any move to increase Galvan’s restitution.

“It’s going to be hotly contested,” he said, declining to comment further.

The London firm, hired June 17 with a $10,000 retainer, agreed to represent the Coroner’s Office in “the federal grand jury investigation, as well as the Louisiana legislative auditor’s and attorney general’s investigation.” That firm’s hourly fee was $400 for London, less for his associates.

Hand did not return a message left at his office.

The hearing on restitution is scheduled for April 9, just two days before Galvan is supposed to report to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin his sentence.

His resignation and plea deal in October brought to an end to his 13-year tenure in office, which was marked by big election wins, a huge expansion of office revenue and, in the end, tumult.

For most of his last year in office, the once-popular coroner became more and more reclusive as media reports about his lavish spending and high staff salaries — Galvan himself was earning more than $200,000 — began to surface. Soon after that, investigations by the Legislative Auditor’s Office, Attorney General’s Office and federal authorities came to light. Those reports culminated in early October, when Galvan was charged in a bill of information with a count of conspiracy to commit theft. Two employees of his office — identified in the indictment only as “Individual A” and “Individual B” — have, so far, not been charged.

After his resignation, the Parish Council appointed cardiologist Pramod Menon to serve as interim coroner and set his salary at $72,000 a year.

A special election to fill the remainder of Galvan’s term is set for April 5. Four candidates — Slidell gynecologist Robert Muller, retired Slidell emergency physician Charles Preston, Slidell primary care doctor Adrian Talbot and Mandeville psychiatrist and Deputy Coroner Leanne Truehart — are vying for the job.

The council has set the salary for the next elected coroner at $84,000 a year.